Qatar launched its bid for the 2022 World Cup with a powerful vision that soccer could unite the Middle East.
“Just think together of what we can achieve together,” Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the Qatar’s then-ruler, told FIFA voters in 2010. She ambitiously forecast a “culture of peace across our region through football,”
With five years until kickoff, that optimism is rapidly disintegrating after Arab neighbors severed ties on Monday with the tiny nation that turned to sports to buttress its global status.
FIFA is hoping the regional rifts are healed long before world soccer’s governing body might have to contemplate any change of host, a move that would deal a heavy blow to Qatar’s reputation and economy as it is investing more than $150 billion on infrastructure to handle the World Cup.
For now, FIFA is predictably sidestepping detailed questions about the impact of the storm caused by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates casting Qatar adrift diplomatically. FIFA merely stresses that it maintains regular contact with Qatar, whose political leadership is accused of supporting terror groups, interfering in the sovereign affairs of Arab countries and backing groups that undermine political stability.
“One thing is certain, the world’s football community should agree that large tournaments cannot be played in countries that actively support terror,” said Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football federation and a member of FIFA’s ruling council.
Qatar denies funding extremists, but that hasn’t stopped its neighbors from implementing punitive measures that impact people and businesses across the region, including soccer fans.
FIFA was dragged into the backlash against Qatar on Tuesday when state-funded broadcaster beIN Sports appeared to be blocked in the UAE. With beIN holding the broadcasting rights to FIFA events across the Middle East and North Africa, the ongoing Under-20 World Cup in South Korea will now be unavailable for viewers in the UAE.
“FIFA is in contact with beIN Sports regarding the said matter which we continue to monitor,” the Zurich-based body said.
FIFA is also in partnership with Qatar’s flagship carrier. Qatar Airways, which signed up as a World Cup sponsor last month, has been forced to reroute journeys over Iranian and Turkish airspace after Saudi Arabia and Egypt blocked Qatari flights from using their airspace. A soccer sponsorship has already been affected, with Saudi club Al-Ahli terminating its deal with the airline.
The escalation of the crisis in the Persian Gulf will have underscored to FIFA just how precarious the region is, and the geographical weakness of oil-and-gas rich Qatar.
The desert nation is heavily reliant on food imports, predominantly through its border with Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of trucks transporting food and construction materials have now been stopped from entering.
A sustained blockade could hit the construction boom required to transform the sparse nation. An entire city is being built from scratch to stage the final. Not a single stadium was ready at the time of bidding, and only one venue has so far been completed as Qatar prepares to welcome the 32 teams.
Qatar has long been heavily reliant on a massive workforce of migrant laborers from Asia to expand its infrastructure. The Philippines has temporarily suspended the deployment of Filipino workers to Doha, but said there is no plan yet to repatriate the more than 200,000 existing members of the labor force.
Being handed the World Cup made working, living conditions and employment rights in Qatar a global concern like never before. Practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system that bind workers to their employer are in place across the region, but activists have largely only shone the spotlight on Qatar and the human cost of hosting the World Cup.
Qatar has responded to the pressure by compelling companies to adopt labor reforms. It’s one of the consequences of hosting a major sporting event that Qatar did not seem to anticipate amid the joy of stunning Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States in the 2010 vote.
Qatar has got the attention it craved, but it’s largely been unwelcome, with little of the warm unifying sentiment conveyed in the aspirational bid videos.
From the moment then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope in Zurich, the whiff of corruption has hung over Qatar, coupled with concerns about heat that forced the tournament to be shifted to November-December.
Despite being exonerated by FIFA’s ethics investigators, the finger of suspicion has never been lifted by Qatar’s harshest critics. Chatter about Qatar being stripped of the hosting rights or being boycotted by some countries has persisted, without the call coming from any authoritative soccer body or government.
Significantly, the federation of World Cup holder Germany is not endorsing such an extreme move.
“There are still five years before the World Cup kicks off,” Grindel said. “Political solutions must take precedence over threats of boycott in this time.”
The countries currently embroiled in the dispute with Qatar are not World Cup regulars, so there are slim chances of their teams qualifying for the 2022 tournament. But Qatar will be hosting athletes from across the region when it stages the world track and field championships in 2019.
“We are talking to our teams in the region to properly understand the implications for both the short term and long term,” the IAAF said.
In a region that Qatar hoped to bring together through lavish sporting events, the peninsula has never appeared more isolated.