Football Produces for Qatar PR Fiasco Rather than PR Boon
Photo by Flickr user lefty1007 used under a Creative Commons License 2,0.
04.04.2011By James M. Dorsey
Months after winning its bid to host the 2022 World Cup and serving as the venue for the Asian Cup, Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign is under scrutiny and the Asian Cup barely passed muster.
Qatar’s image problems were further compounded by a US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks that revealed for the first time that Qatari nationals were also involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
To top things off, Qatar dashed hopes that it would break with the Middle Eastern norm of linking the government’s prestige to the performance of the country’s national football team when it fired its charismatic national coach, Frenchman Bruno Metsu. By firing Metsu, it affirmed a policy prevalent in the region that emphasizes political rather than sports performance and encourages a short-term approach that demands immediate results rather than the long-term vision needed to build a sustainable, winning team.
The Qatar Football Federation fired Metsu because of the failure of its national team to progress to the semi-finals in the Asian Cup. Qatar like all other Middle Eastern teams, who accounted for half the countries competing in the Asian Cup, didn’t get past the quarterfinals, but produced its best performance ever in an international tournament.
In short, what should have been a PR boon building on its successful World Cup has turned into a PR fiasco.
Campaigning for FIFA Presidency
Qatar’s next step in establishing itself as a football powerhouse and global sports hub is likely to also prove a double edged sword. With his announcement that he will challenge Sepp Blatter, the long-standing imperious FIFA president, in elections scheduled for June 1, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam ensured that scrutiny of Qatar and its World Cup bid will intensify. A self-made millionaire, Bin Hammam is a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling royal family who played a key role in securing the World Cup.
Campaigning promises to be down and dirty with Bin Hammam calling for greater transparency and accountability in FIFA and blaming Blatter for the tarnishing of FIFA’s image as the result of a series of recent corruption-related scandals. Blatter sent a shot across Bin Hammam’s bow even before the Qatari formally announced his candidacy by confirming publicly that Qatar had colluded with Spain and Portugal in violation of FIFA rules to swap votes in their respective bids to host a World Cup. Spain and Portugal had joined forces to bid for the 2018 World Cup but lost to Russia. In confirming the collusion, Blatter not only sought to undermine Bin Hammam’s effort to present himself and Qatar as shining white knights. He also effectively called into question the veracity of earlier FIFA statements that it had investigated the alleged vote swap but found no evidence to substantiate it.
Did bribery bring the World Cup to Qatar?
Journalist Thomas Kistner, sports editor of the respected Munich-based German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, promises to exacerbate Qatar’s problem in early April by providing at a conference in Miami on offshore financial centres and serious financial crime what he describes as evidence that Qatar won its bid through bribery. Kistner said his evidence would show that Qatar bribed Vice President Julio Grondona and other executive members with promises to build 22 stadiums and other facilities in countries represented on the FIFA executive committee and got French President Nicolas Sarkozy to persuade UEFA president Michel Platini to vote on its behalf.
Kistner’s assertions were backed by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer who without confirming specifics criticized fellow committee members for being influenced by ambiguous “legacy” promises such as assistance in building new training facilities in their home countries.
The Wall Street Journal, quoting internal Qatari bid committee documents that it reviewed, reported that Qatari officials had discussed circumventing a written FIFA request not to hold high-profile events during the FIFA World Cup. It said that senior bidding committee executives further discussed during a January 4, 2010 strategy meeting the need to improve Qatar's standing within the world football community by helping South Africa's poor during the 2010 World Cup.
"If FIFA regulations prevent these initiatives then a way has to be found to do these under a different name (e.g. through the embassy or as the State of Qatar)," the Journal quotes minutes from the meeting as saying. Qatari executives say the committee ultimately backed away from the plan to keep its credibility intact.
Qatar’s Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, which is controlled by the ruling family, last year added Thailand and Costa Rica, two nations with members on the FIFA executive committee, to its annual Aspire Football Dreams tournament, the largest talent hunt in football history. A 2009 Qatari bid document, reviewed by the Journal, lays out plans for grassroots football training in Nigeria and to "build a football academy in Thailand emulating the Aspire Football Dreams Academy in Senegal."
Thai committee member Worawi Makudi is believed to have voted in favour of Qatar. Other countries represented on FIFA’s executive committee – Paraguay, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria -- already were included among the 16 countries participating in Qatar’s hunt for the next generation of world class football players. More than half a million kids born in the mid-1990s from hundreds of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America competed to be one of 25 players accepted at Aspire’s training academies in Qatar and Senegal.
Lack of football culture and questionable hosting experiences
The Asian Cup was supposed to silence critics of Qatar’s winning of its World Cup bid. The critics assert that the tiny desert state lacks a football culture as well as a sufficiently large fan base to justify hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. They point to past problems with Qatar’s hosting of events.
Qatar’s first foray into the hosting business with the 2006 Asian Games was marred by the fatal accident in competition of South Korean equestrian Kim Hyung-chil. Logistics were a major issue in 2008 and 2009 when the national Qatari football team hosted their English and Brazilian counterparts.
“Plastic glow-sticks were given to every fan to join in a light display at the start of the match. However, within seconds of the start of the display these glow-sticks turned into mini-missiles being hurled towards the pitch, often clattering into those in the front few rows. At the end of the match chronic transportation problems left thousands of fans stranded around the stadium for hours on end at the mercy of profiteering taxi drivers,” recalls David Roberts, who is doing a PhD on Qatar, on his blog.
As a result, the Asian tournament was as much about the competition as it was about Qatar. Yet rather than allaying concerns about its ability to host the World Cup, Qatar’s handling of the Asian Cup gave them a new lease on life.
Fundamental differences in Western and Gulf football perceptions
Underlying the various issues that pose a PR challenge for Qatar is a fundamental difference in Western and Gulf perceptions of football. Those differences were highlighted during a recent visit to Doha by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Referring to Qatar’s ban on homosexuality, Cameron told a joint news conference with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani that “it is clear – football is for everybody. No one should be excluded on the basis of their race or religion or sex or sexuality. It is absolutely vital that is the case. I am sure that will be the case when the football World Cup comes here to Qatar.”
Cameron laid out a philosophy of football that embraces all segments of the population irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual disposition even if Europe in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and economic malaise has made the continent more hostile to immigrants.
By contrast, Al Thani put football in the context of economic and technological progress that preserves conservative and religious values in a country in which Qataris constitute only one third of the population. With other words he subscribed to Cameron’s creed of employing football to break down barriers only to the degree that it does not endanger the Qatari minority’s national and cultural identity and privileged position.
To Cameron, sports and football in particular is a key pillar of civic society and an economic generator. To Al Thani, football is a tool that allows the tiny Gulf state to project itself onto the world stage, establish itself as a global sports hub and create economic opportunity.
"I like sport, of course, but I am not involved in sport. I suspect FIFA chose Qatar for 2022 to take it to different grounds, different culture, different geography. This shows that football is international," Al Thani said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer