First game v Ecuador @16:00 GMT, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor
Words by Ili Hyseni
When Qatar was handed the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, many questioned the decision. Initially the idea of hosting the world’s eminent football tournament in a country where summer temperatures regularly hover between 35C and 45C seemed crazy. Players, stereotypically the English, often struggle with hot conditions at the Euros and you’d expect that to be the case when playing high stakes games in the middle of a Middle Eastern summer. While this issue was acknowledged almost from the get go, it took FIFA officials 5 years to confirm the tournament would indeed be played in winter.
This allayed some fears of heat stroke and other effects scorching conditions would have on players but other issues continued to dominate conversation around the tournament. For one, Qatar didn’t seem like a country capable of hosting such a large scale event. Not a huge problem for a country as wealthy as Qatar however. Key infrastructure including stadiums, roads, airports and accommodation have all been built since the country was awarded the rights. The colossal building projects have been under the spotlight almost ever since they got underway. Qatar is a country where human rights have certainly been taken lightly. Construction workers are known to have worked in squalid conditions on site and have been afforded very few basic luxuries off site. Health and safety standards were called into question when the The Guardian revealed that 6500 migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan had died working on the projects. When taking into account the total number of workers that Qatar has brought in, said to be 30,000, the number of deaths account for 18.5% of the workforce. Aside from the deaths, work-place abuse has been rife. Labourers have complained of unpaid wages and those that have dared to stand up to the authorities have been deported. The Qatari government had been accused of holding migrant workers captive under the country’s ‘Kafala’ system. A system that amounts to forced labour, whereby foreign workers are brought in and then have their documents confiscated in order to keep them there at the whim of their employers. Under intense pressure from rights groups and the International Labour Organisation, the Qatari government abolished Kafala but employer pressure and abuse is said to persist.
The abuses lead to a concerted response from football federations and fans from around the world. The Norwegian FA famously lead opposition to what was going on in Qatar, working with rights groups and international organisations to mount pressure on the government. Last year the NFF rejected the chance to officially boycott the tournament, saying that working to improve the situation constructively would be a better approach. In an earlier article, we talked about how the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar were using football to improve their global image and standing. We discussed how teams in the European World Cup Qualifiers made a stand by wearing t-shirts promoting human rights ‘on and off pitch’. While most nations are in opposition to the foundations this tournament has been built on, they have all stopped short of boycotting the tournament; opting in favour of the Norwegian approach.
The sport has for the most part been captured by corporate interests in which profit making informs decision making. It’s therefore no surprise that the World Cup was given to Qatar. Talk of boycotts, while symbolic, would have no effect on the tournament being held, with sponsorship money having already changed hands in most cases. Teams refusing to play and fans abstaining from stadiums and refusing to watch games on TV would cause a headache for organisers but change very little materially. The pressure from organisations and fans groups should be sustained and those united in upholding the rights of all groups will now turn their attention to the 2030 World Cup potentially falling into the hands of Saudi Arabia.
While Qatar has been accused of the likes of corruption, work place abuse, the diminishment of minority rights, the country has also been busy transforming its relationship with football. A relatively new name in the forefront of fans’ minds, Qatar’s team has been built from scratch with the aim of not just participating in the World Cup, but playing a major role in it too. Relationships developed with governing bodies like UEFA, through the country’s ownership of PSG, have opened up doors that many other host nations would not have had access to. Qatar has rapidly developed into a football nation to be taken seriously, investing $1.4BN into the massive ‘Aspire’ sports complex, complete with sports science labs and the largest indoor FIFA approved football arena in the world.
There has also been a focus on improving domestic football, with the Qatar Stars League being the source of most of the national team’s players. To raise the standard, club sides have worked hard at attracting big stars to come play and indeed coach. Over the years the likes of James Rodriguez, Thiago’s brother Rafinha and Yacine Brahimi have all featured in the league. In what was widely seen as preparation for the Barca role, Xavi coached record champions Al Sadd SC between 2019 and 2021.
The country has quickly seen somewhat of a return on its huge investment, winning the Asian Cup for the first time in 2019, beating traditional heavyweights like South Korea and Japan to the title. At the helm of this national effort has been Spanish head coach Felix Sanchez who spent formative years as a youth coach at Barcelona’s La Masia academy. Sanchez is credited with leading the transformation having worked at every level of Qatar’s national setup, working to develop a new generation of talent. The national football strategy has had success, unearthing diamonds including Almoez Ali, a Sudan born striker who represents Qatar and tricky Al Sadd winger Akram Afif who has played for a number of Spanish clubs and became the first Qatari player to be signed by a La Liga side when he joined Villarreal in 2016. Afif, like Ali has mixed heritage; having been born to a Somali father and Yemeni mother. Afif and Ali are just two players in what is a very multicultural national team. Qatar heavily relies on foreign labour and as such, Qataris are a minority in their own country. This means, as is the case in the labour market, that the national team has relied heavily on foreign born players who have qualified for naturalisation. The current squad includes 10 players who were born outside the country including Sudan, Egypt, Ghana, Iraq and Portugal. They say football reflects the society it serves and this is definitely the case in Qatar, with the team as multicultural as the country it represents.
To help Qatar gain valuable high level match experience commercial relationships between the state’s biggest companies and global football organisations have been leveraged. In 2019, Qatar were invited to participate in the Copa America thanks to CONMEBOL’S relationship with the national flag carrier Qatar Airways. They then also featured as a guest team in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, reaching the semi finals where they lost 1-0 to the U.S. In order to prepare for this year’s tournament, UEFA invited Qatar to take part in the European qualifying stages; being placed in Ireland’s group as a ‘ghost team’.
With no Confederations’ Cup to use as a measure of where Qatar are in their preparation for the World Cup, both on and off field, last year’s Arab Cup was seen as a chance to lay down a marker. As expected the team won all three games in a group featuring Bahrain, Iraq and Oman. The quarter finals were just as easy, with Qatar beating the UAE 5-0. It was in the semi finals, where up against their first real test, that Qatar faltered. A narrow 2-1 loss against Algeria saw them drop into the third place playoff where victory against Egypt served as some consolation for the host nation.
Qatar will by no means be the lowest ranked nation to host a World Cup and neither will they be the lowest ranked team at the tournament. Yet, having played 19 times in the last year, with many mixed results; it is hard to judge how they will perform at the finals. There is, however, the precedent of host nations over-performing- you’ll remember that South Korea went deep into the tournament in 2002 and Russia surprised everyone with their run to the quarter finals in 2018. So perhaps ‘The Maroon’ will announce themselves as a football force to be reckoned with. Only time will tell.