Reflections on Qatar and the World Cup

Last week the BBC revealed a series of emails, after a Freedom of Information request, relating to England’s doomed World Cup bid. The emails are between various people including diplomats, members of the foreign office, trade and industry officials, members of the bidding team and people from the Duke of York’s office. They detail the political thinking on how to go about improving the chances of the bid’s success and several suggestions are made on lobbying strategies. 

The principal plan seemed to have been to target Qatar, the eventual winners of the 2022 bid. This was because Mohammed Bin Hammam, the head of Asian football and also a Qatari, made it clear that he would be voting as the Emir of Qatar told him to.

The Emir of Qatar: A powerful man

An email sent by the British Ambassador in Qatar reads “The Qatari EXCO [executive committee] member, Bin Hammam is KL [Kuala Lumpur] based but has made it clear throughout that he will do what the Emir tells him. I have been telling the FA for over a year thar the Emir’s decision will be driven by what he judges is in the best interests of Qatar’s 2022 bid.”

Securing this vote was of vital importance as FIFA committee members tend to vote in blocs. Therefore gaining Bin Hammam’s backing would also lead to the votes of the two other Asia members; Thailand’s Worawi Makudi and Egypt’s Harry Abou Rida.

The train of emails goes on to repeatedly show that various bid and Government officials were exploring the option of setting up a voting alliance with the Qataris. Voting alliances were strictly against FIFA voting rules and were exactly what England’s team alleged that the Spain/Portugal and Qatar teams were guilty of in the run up to the vote.

Several issues are raised from these emails. First is the very obvious point that the indignation and allegations from the English team before and after the vote were extremely hypocritical.

Secondly, and this is a point a re-raised from my previous article on the voting process, is that the ridiculously small amount of committee members means that the voting blocs mean that the value of any deals that can be done, legally or illegally, is magnified. These groupings gives a lot of power to a small number of individuals as we see with the Emir of Qatar basically commanding three votes. That can’t be right can it?

This links with my final point. I, like many I believe, was incredibly surprised when Qatar was confirmed as the 2022 hosts. How could such a small country, with a hostile climate and very little footballing pedigree be given that most coveted of honours of being a World Cup host. Even given that Blatter seems to be trying to create new markets for football, it seemed incredible. These emails now have now illuminated how that actually happened though and how much power the Emir of Qatar, ruler of 1.7 million people, exerts in political and sporting circles.

In retrospect, that is perhaps not overly surprising. The cash rich country that gained its wealth through oil and gas has spent the last few years diversifying its portfolio through The Qatari Investment Authority, which has used its huge sovereign wealth to purchase shares in many of the world’s large companies and well as much real estate including large chunks of London. They have become major players on a global stage so why not in football too, even if they have not had the success on the pitch yet. Qatar were in a favourable bargaining position and played their hand very well.

Whether you think that a World Cup in Qatar is a good thing or not, the whole escapade, including the released emails, shows that within FIFA the power is too condensed and too open to abuse.

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