How the World Cup became a political football

Qatar’s diplomatic crisis fuels calls for a change of venue

Simon Chadwick

Trade and industry, International relations | Asia, The World

15 June 2017

Will the 2022 World Cup need to find a new host country? Simon Chadwick takes a look at the controversial decision to host in the Gulf state, and those that would see it played elsewhere.

The decision to host the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar has been steeped in controversy, and just when you thought it could not become any more contentious, it did. The recent cutting of diplomatic ties with the small Gulf nation by several of its neighbours has led to fevered speculation that world football’s showcase tournament might be moved elsewhere.

This is not only wishful thinking among Qatar’s sternest critics but also somewhat premature (the 2022 World Cup is still more than five years away). That said, the rumours about a new host being found warrant further examination and are not without some substance.

Qatar has at times had a fractious relationship with the countries now severing links to the world’s richest per capita nation. Indeed, back in 2014, there was a similar diplomatic spat which resulted in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrawing their diplomats from Doha.

Clearly, some issues have remained unresolved and resurfaced again, but this time on an unprecedented scale. Speculation is rife about the reasons for this, with explanations ranging from Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism through to its supposed interference in the domestic politics of its neighbours, and even reports of huge ransoms being paid by the Doha government for the release of a royal family hunting party that was taken hostage in Iraq. Perhaps the real source of current problems may never be known.

Whatever the explanation, the current diplomatic action being taken against Qatar has resulted in land, sea and air blockades being imposed. In addition, commercial contracts have been terminated; in sport, for example, Saudi Arabian football club Al Ahli immediately terminated its shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways, while Asian Champions League games are being moved away from Doha.

At the very least, ahead of the World Cup Qatar will have to address and resolve its differences with the likes of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since 2010’s award of the tournament, the country’s Supreme Committee has positioned it as a regional rather than purely a domestic event. This is no surprise, as Qatar is a country of little more than 2.4 million people whereas Saudi Arabia (the only country with which it shares a land border) has a football crazy population of almost 32 million.

More on this: Can FIFA reform itself?

People will, therefore, need to be able to travel to the World Cup which, if there are flight bans, will prove difficult. Similarly, with food shortages looming in Qatar, the last thing FIFA will want is for thousands of fans and officials to potentially go hungry in 2022.

Yet there are more pressing short-term issues facing Doha’s government, particularly stadium construction. With only one World Cup venue thus far completed, the country is dependent on concrete and steel imports to complete the rest of the stadiums. The current ban on such imports is likely to be stalling the country’s building programme.

A tangible threat to 2022 thus exists, though one must question how serious it is. Qatar has put hosting football’s biggest tournament at the heart of both its industrial vision and its national sports strategy. As such the country will be loathe for anything to undermine or threaten its staging of the World Cup. Not only is there the potential for embarrassment and reputational damage, the tournament is also being used as one of the principle drivers for many of its civic infrastructural developments.

Nevertheless, the mega-event has also been a means through which Qatar has sought to assert its regional and international presence. This may be one possible source of current problems, particularly in the way that it has brought about, at least from a Qatari perspective, an unfortunate alignment of several factors. Among these are Saudi Arabian agitation with its neighbour; a bellicose Donald Trump’s recent visit to the region; and a more general and continuing irritation with FIFA’s award of the 2022 tournament to Qatar.

A common denominator across these three factors is the United States. Trump’s recent visit to the region appears to have been marked by a sharp change in US policy direction on Qatar. This is unsurprising given the hawkish anti-Doha sentiment that characterises some of Trump’s advisory team. This seems to have emboldened Saudi Arabia and its allies, resulting in a turbulent past few weeks in which Qatar has become embroiled in several diplomatic incidents.

Yet it is worth remembering too that the US has unfinished business with FIFA. Following the re-election of Sepp Blatter in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation intervened, while four of FIFA’s US sponsors issued a joint public statement condemning the world governing body’s failure to address its governance problems. It is arguable that US irritation remains, fuelled by a sense of injustice: the country lost out to Qatar in the race for 2022, following a bidding process about which there is still a great deal of criticism. FIFA’s more general eastward lurch is probably not helping matters either.

Qatar’s World Cup has always been somewhat politicised, but recent events appear to have intensified this feeling. Indeed, rather than being at the centre of a regional political spat, it now seems to have become the pawn in an intricate network of competing geopolitical interests.

With countries such as the UAE stepping-up their anti-Qatar measures, and Iran and Turkey intervening to support the Doha government, little could FIFA have known how profound its 2022 hosting decision would ultimately become.

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