Today I’ve got something a little different, and more in-depth, than usual. With the football world once again flush with stories about match fixing (once again popping up in Italy), my thoughts turned to another controversial issue in today’s football landscape…Qatar. With widely-held agreement across the landscape, Qatar has become the epitome of the corruption and greed that permeates the Beautiful Game – even if the gory details haven’t been exposed for the fans to see. What follows is an opinion piece on why I believe the decision to grant Qatar membership into the extremely exclusive club of countries that have hosted the world’s biggest and best sporting event is wrong, but not necessarily for the reasons that have grabbed all of the headlines recently. Let’s dive in…
As you all are likely aware, Qatar, a country roughly the size of Connecticut, residing on the shores of the Persian Gulf, has been chosen to host the 2022 edition of the World’s Biggest Soccer Party, aka the FIFA World Cup Finals. Many of you may be scratching your head at the location and size of the country, seeing as how it’s only approximately 4,500 square miles and is home to a shade over 2 million people. How can this country – which while oil rich, is still lagging behind in terms of infrastructure and basic human rights for its people – have been chosen to put on such a demanding spectacle as the World Cup? The answer is….greed. Money makes the world go round nowadays, or more accurately, everyone is now aware that money makes the world go round and we’re only realizing the extent to which this has been happening in the dark corners of the world throughout history. While I won’t claim to believe that prior iterations of the World Cup didn’t come with some modicum of shady dealings, backroom handshakes concealing fat envelopes of cash, or conspiracy theories, this time it’s come to the fore and become a black eye not only on Qatar, but FIFA, international football confederations, as well as the game itself.
A Watershed Moment for Football
The choice of Qatar is one that will usher in fundamental change to the game, one that will firmly put the gentlemanly, amateur roots of the game to rest for eternity – leaving a new generation to revere the current times as the “good ‘ole times”, the ones before the game got “commercial” or “overrun by corporate overlords”. Not to say it hasn’t evolved previously, just look at this photo, no sponsors on shirts, not advertising hoardings surrounding the pitch, no television demands placed on the game’s presentation:
Still, droves of fans all across the world continue to turn out for matches. Matches that today could be more accurately classified as spectacles and not just games, almost nudging the game into this new era that Qatar will debut.
This to me is a much different kind of shift from those previously experienced by the game, one that firmly, inexorably, and clearly shifts the focus of the game from the fan to the corporate sponsor and the almighty dollar. In previous shifts, things like the invention and proliferation of the television pushed for the game to become more TV friendly, leading to those television providers bringing stadium-wide, and even on-pitch advertising:
Even players today tend to look like walking billboards:
This “monetization” of sport is not confined just to soccer, we’re seeing it in the MLB with regular families unable to afford a day at the park anymore, in the NFL where seat licenses (basically paying for the right to pay for astronomically priced season tickets) have become the norm for their fans, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The sports world is kowtowing to the almighty Corporation, and I’m afraid to say that it appears that soccer may be the next domino to fall. Every winter and summer transfer fees break records, players’ weekly wage packets outstrip a typical family’s annual earning power, and TV contracts and the revenues they promise to deliver have supplanted supporters as the most valuable asset to a club. And FIFA is doing nothing to stem that tide.
A World Cup in Qatar can only be a reality in its winter, a time where the temperatures are more temperate and players can play with less fear that they won’t collapse on the field from heatstroke. This would necessitate a scheduling shift in just about every single top-flight league across the world. All of Europe, save Russia, basically follow the August-to-May timeframe for league play, while some leagues, namely the Premier League, don’t even take a winter break like Italy and Spain do. Not only would it disrupt domestic leagues for years on either side of a possible 2022 winter World Cup, it would disrupt UEFA’s cash cow, the Champions League. I won’t begin to speculate on the machinations that would need to occur in order to accommodate a switch like this, but to seemingly make an exception, after the fact no less, for this edition of the tournament stinks of FIFA covering their tracks insofar as their incompetence, lack of foresight, and shady backroom dealings go.
FIFA knew that the choice of Qatar, while it was facilitated by the proverbial greasing of other federations’ wheels, would likely necessitate a monumental shift in the soccer calendar for a significant portion, if not all, of the campaigns of all major leagues the world over. This would allow FIFA not only to create new bidding wars for the TV rights to the matches, but it would basically allow them to shop the spectacle that is the World Cup around the world, regardless of the history it has and the very precarious position it takes up in today’s packed footballing calendar, to the highest bidder. Who knows what this would do to the already shaky financial underpinnings of European football. What with clubs posting incredible losses every year and Financial Fair Play rules amusingly attempting to curb this behavior, the financial ramifications of allowing the ‘haves’ the power to renegotiate a myriad of deals (TV, advertising, etc.) to address the changes in European season will only serve to widen the gulph between them and the ‘have nots’.
Rampant Bribery, Shady Dealings, and Human Rights Violations
It will make me a very sad, future father to have to recant what the game really used to aspire to be, the values and morals it used to convey through its fluid play, to my future children (whom will obviously be successful, yet humble, international football stars…supporting me with their megalithic salaries) in place of them experiencing it with their own two eyes. The choice of Qatar was one of fundamental ignorance and/or rampant, deep seeded cronyism. I prefer to believe it was only the latter, and that the Executive Committee of FIFA (ExCo) wasn’t just that flat out thick. There had to be someone who knew that that part of the world was hot as f*** during the months in which the World Cup is held, leading me to believe that this is purely a money grab. The federation representatives from across the globe saw this as a good way to grab some cash – from the tournament itself, as well as some pocket-lining bribes – and tap a supremely rich area of the world (in the 1% ruling parties of course).
This region has staged many football events. We have the World Club Cup (held in the UAE). A few FIFA youth championships have also been held in the Middle East. I think this region deserves a World Cup. There are 22 countries in this region which loves football.
Now, while this is an admirable approach, trying to bring the game to areas that haven’t been able to experience it at its highest level, some things just aren’t meant to be. The Super Bowl, up until last year, was never held outdoors in a climate that posed a significant risk of inclement winter weather, and for good reason. God forbid weather altered the broadcast of the game, made it difficult/impossible for spectators to get to the game safely, or even worse, caused the game to be postponed – as advertisers, TV execs, and a whole host of financial stakeholders would be knocking down the NFL’s doors crying foul and looking to collect damages for contract non-performance. A similar school of thought has ruled the World Cup’s timing and country selection since its inception, again, all for good reason. The fact that the tournament is played in one country versus another does not affect the ability of fans to connect with the tournament. In this day and age, even those in countries where the infrastructure isn’t top-notch still find ways to watch their beloved stars, so Blatter’s argument that the game needs to be brought to these far flung reaches of the footballing world is moot. If he wanted to be able to bring the Beautiful Game to all corners of the world, he should have stuck with the continent rotation program that would in and of itself accomplished this “goal” of his.
Not to mention the so-called “Garcia Report”, and the fervor that it’s suppression has sparked throughout the world. It seems that in recent weeks, the tide is turning and those who are in the dark about the bidding process Qatar (and Russia frankly) went through to win their respective bids are demanding some transparency. This is a step in the right direction, but I fear the report may be so extensively altered or doctored to exclude inflammatory language or any true findings, that it’s release won’t shed any more light on the situation than already has been.
On top of the apparent deception shrouding the Qatari bid, there are a multitude of reports citing human rights violations of migrant workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and other nearby countries who moved to Qatar on the promise of a job, and ended up in de facto slavery. The country itself is so unprepared for the tournament that they have to build cities, yes entire cities, to house the proposed stadiums and fans that will inundate the tiny nation for a month. With increasing scrutiny on the similarly corrupt International Olympic Committee (IOC) in regards to the “white elephants” erected and then left to rot after each iteration of the Olympic Games – as well as the debt the country is saddled with – the fact that entire cities need to be built for this tournament to go ahead would, to me, be an impasse that could not be crossed. But that’s me being prudent, something FIFA knows nothing about.
Disregard for Safety of Assets
Plain and simple, players are FIFA’s biggest assets, without them, there is no World Cup as we know it. Do you think finely tuned athletes, whose income is dependent upon their ability to do a job, and excel, on the pitch would gladly play in matches where heatstroke was a serious probability? The legacy left by the death of Marc-Vivien Foe still resonates throughout the footballing community, and coupled with Fabrice Muamba’s recent on-pitch scare, player safety is likely to be a huge sticking point in the context of Qatar. These two incidents happened to two players who were thought to be fine-tuned athletic machines, only to find out about underlying medical conditions that were almost impossible to uncover or predict. Would Cristiano Ronaldo boycott playing for his national side in order to protect his own well-being as well as his future earning power? I can’t authoritatively conclude one way or another, but it’s a fair bet to say that there most definitely would be a cadre of players unwilling to put their lives on the line during the Qatari summer. Without world class players, advertisers will be hesitant to splash as much cash on a spectacle that won’t appeal as broadly to football fans – and in turn translate to less advertising dollars for these sponsors that are so critical to FIFA’s bank account…I mean mission to spread the Beautiful Game.
With this decision, FIFA effectively abandoned any remaining dregs of respect it had for the game. This black eye laid firmly on FIFA has been there for some time and has only gotten worse. As I said before, it’s damn near impossible that someone on the ExCo didn’t say something along the lines of, “Guys, it’s hot in Qatar. Like REALLY hot. How about we choose a country where our most precious assets (the players) aren’t in jeopardy of melting on the field?” This is a concern that, in my mind, is not negotiable.
If Qatar 2022 does comes to pass, and goes along as planned, it will be the catalyst for this monumental shift in the Beautiful Game. It is tantamount to FIFA admitting that the organization truly does not have the best interests of the game at heart and the quadrennial tournament is just a revenue generator for their cronies and their associates. Looking at Qatar, there is an overwhelming preponderance of negative aspects relating to Qatar’s hosting that it’s mind boggling that they were chosen. Unless you’re versed in FIFA’s incompetent leadership, and shady inner workings, you’d think that someone within the process would have put a stop to this before the bid was put forth as an option. It’s my opinion that there were some dissenting opinions, but like I said before, money talks.