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Costliest World Cup ever to kick off in Qatar under shadow of controversy

Questions swirl on the awarding of the football tournament to Qatar, its suitability as a venue and the country’s approach to human rights.

Costliest World Cup ever to kick off in Qatar under shadow of controversy
Questions have been raised about Qatar's suitability as a footballing venue given its harsh climate. (Photo: AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat)

SINGAPORE: The upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar is shaping up to be one where events off the pitch could well overshadow action on the field.

Qatar's selection as host, the timing of the tournament and the Middle Eastern nation’s approach to issues from labour to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights - such controversies have taken centrestage in the lead-up to the competition.

Qatari authorities have stated that certain compromises would be made in the enforcement of its laws - for instance in the consumption of alcohol - and that steps would be taken to mitigate the effects of the heat.

"FOCUS ON THE FOOTBALL"?

The tournament, held every four years, got off to a rough start from the moment it was awarded to Qatar back in 2010. 

Questions were raised about its suitability as a footballing venue given its harsh climate, said Deloitte Southeast Asia’s sports business group leader James Walton.

Criticism later emerged on how hosting it at the end of the year would disrupt domestic league calendars, Mr Walton told CNA’s Asia First.
 
“That noise has only got louder over the years, as it's become clear that there were certainly some things that went on in the background of the bidding process, that perhaps shouldn't have been done,” he said.

Suspicions have long surrounded the decision by FIFA's executive committee to hand the 2022 tournament to Qatar, as well as the 2018 edition to Russia, with bribes allegedly paid to secure votes for hosting rights - something organisers have strongly denied.

The labour conditions for migrant workers building Qatar's World Cup stadiums is a key issue. (Photo: AFP/Giuseppe Cacace)

Mr Walton noted that key officials involved in the process have come under scrutiny, with some banned from football and even facing criminal charges.

“Sepp Blatter himself has come out and said that he thinks the decision was wrong now,” he said of the former FIFA president who led the organisation for 17 years.

Mr Walton added that many promises made back then have since been broken.

“In fact, at the time, one of the commitments was that the World Cup would not be moved from its traditional summer timing and disrupt the international football calendar, and yet that ultimately happened in the interest of player safety,” he said.

The Qatar tournament will be the first World Cup to be played in the winter season, due to the extreme heat of the Middle East summer where temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius.

The World Cup has always been held in the northern hemisphere summer months of June or July, since its first edition in 1930.

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter announcing that Qatar will be hosting the 2022 World Cup, back in 2010. (Photo: AP/Walter Bieri)

On top of scheduling, there are also concerns around human rights abuses, press freedom, and suggestions that the event’s environmental impact will be much higher than official estimates, said Mr Walton.

“That has kind of compounded the feeling that many football traditionalists, particularly the European nations, feel that this is really not the way that a World Cup should be done,” he said.

“It certainly is not starting well, but hopefully once the football starts, people can concentrate on the action on the pitch.”

Some teams have gone public with their complaints about these issues. But the football governing body has responded by asking them to "focus on the football" and not politics.

PROMISE OF LENIENCY

The Qatari authorities, along with FIFA, have indicated that they will be more lenient in enforcing the country’s laws and regulations during the tournament, said Mr Walton.

These include issues involving the media, alcohol consumption and treatment of supporters from the LGBT community.

Mr Walton said the Qatari authorities will be mindful not to appear too heavy-handed when dealing with protestors singing songs or holding signs.

“I think they also have one eye on the fact that that would be the worst possible response from their point of view, in terms of the lasting legacy of this World Cup,” he said.

He noted that this will not be the first time a FIFA World Cup is being held under controversial circumstances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) touches the World Cup trophy after the final match between France and Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. (Photo: AP/Petr David Josek)

“Don't forget in 1978, the World Cup went to Argentina while there was a military junta in power that was accused of crimes against its own citizens.

"And we have very short memories for Russia 2018, which was also controversial and, by the way, awarded at a similar timing to Qatar,” said Mr Walton.

FIFA had allowed Russia to go ahead with the 2018 World Cup, despite its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Mr Walton said there is now increased scrutiny of the decision-making behind World Cup hosting rights. This has led to FIFA making various commitments and promises around transparency, though how it plays out remains to be seen.

THE SHOW GOES ON

Despite the controversies, one of sport's' biggest events is going ahead, with fans counting down the days until the opening match between the host nation and Ecuador.

Qatari football fan Mubarak Alkhayarin told CNA that his country has been preparing for the tournament for the past 12 years. "We have been looking forward to this day since 2010, and we hope that everybody likes it," he said.

Azerbaijan national Faredah Ezeldean said it was an “amazing time for the World Cup”.

UK visitor Ryan Charlton was excited to be soaking in the atmosphere of the tournament, held in the Middle East for the first time.

"We're really excited to see all the flags, see all the fans. Yeah, just really excited," he said. "It's going to be a really great World Cup.”

Qatar has pulled out all the stops to help players and spectators beat the heat during matches. Seven new air-conditioned stadiums will be utilised, along with a new metro system and upgraded airport, hotels and restaurants.

This edition has also been dubbed “the most compact World Cup in history”, with travel times between stadiums ranging from five minutes to an hour. This gives supporters the chance to catch as many as three matches a day.

The massive infrastructure behind the project costs around US$200 billion, by far the most expensive tournament in World Cup history.

This is a big jump from previous editions - US$4.6 billion was spent for Germany 2006, US$3.6 billion for South Africa 2010, US$11.6 billion for Brazil 2014 and US$14.2 billion for Russia 2018.

FIFA expects Qatar 2022 to be the most watched World Cup not only in stadiums but also across media platforms. 

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has projected five billion viewers globally - a billion more people compared to the last World Cup in Russia.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino (centre) in Qatar ahead of the World Cup. (Photo: AFP/Karim Jaafar)

Mr Infantino had proposed raising the number of participating teams from 32 to 48 on this basis, though other nations rejected the idea.

Yet the expansion will still happen - at the next World Cup in 2026, to be jointly hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

Source: CNA/fk(ca)

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