When Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup back in 2010, football fans around the globe were astounded at the decision. Many were suspicious, given that they could not even place the tiny Gulf peninsula on a map. Few knew Qatar even had a national football team. Moreover, Doha seemed a rather hot location for a summer World Cup.
Indeed, right from the opening whistle pundits put forth that Qatar bought the bid. Qatar and FIFA have since been trying to make the case that it was merit and not petro-cash that affected the decision. The Qatari diwan and FIFA could not have been happy, then, to see the cover of France Football magazine when it graced stands at the end of January with “Le QATARGATE” emblazoned on the front. What lay inside was a 20-page report laying out how Doha bought the bid and pushing FIFA to remove Qatar as a host.
In what the magazine terms “acts of collusion and corruption,” the exposé shows how Qatar used its generosity to influence members of FIFA’s Executive Committee (EC) to vote in their favor, made donations for youth initiatives through its sports academy Aspire in countries with voters on the EC and provided $1.25 million to “sponsor” the African Confederation congress to win over four Africans on the EC.
On top of that, millions of dollars were offered to reinvigorate Argentinian football to gain a vote, and famous footballers were paid millions to sing Qatar’s praises to the press.
Some of the most revealing news focused on France itself. France Football reported that in November 2010, then President Nicolas Sarkozy organized a dinner for Qatar’s crown prince, Union of European Football Associations’ President Michel Platini and a member of an investment fund that owned struggling football team Paris Saint Germain (PSG). Possibly coincidental, but certainly eyebrow raising, Platini voted for Qatar at the FIFA bid just weeks later. In 2011, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Holding, bought a stake in PSG and the remainder in 2012. PSG has since spent more than $250 million acquiring high profile players, including David Beckham with a $1 million per month contract. Added to this, Qatar set up French TV channel beIN Sport and spent $200 million for the rights to broadcast French football until 2016.
But what does France Football’s expose mean? An investigation has now been started that could strip Doha of the 2022 tournament, which would then be given to the runner up, the United States. There is widespread conjecture that this will not happen though, as it would be exceedingly damaging to FIFA — potentially opening investigations into the transparency of Russia’s bid for the 2018 cup — and would be a crippling blow to Qatar’s image, not to mention its budget plans with a staggering $65 billion to be spent hosting the cup.
Also, Qatar is pushing for the scheduling of the event to be switched from the sweltering summer to winter time instead. This will face fierce opposition from European football leagues, with whose seasons this would coincide (although perhaps not the French).
What is very clear is that Qatar is never going to shake off the notion that its petrodollars bought the 2022 World Cup. But whatever happens over the scheduling, and if Qatar actually remains as host, Doha will have to make damn sure it pulls off a spectacular event, which right now is looking a bit wobbly given the infrastructure needed — metros, train lines, thousands of hotel rooms — and that the technology for the much touted air conditioned stadiums has not even been tested yet.
In the meantime, another “Qatargate” is in the offing: how did the gulf monarchy manage to become an “associate member” in the International Organization of the Francophonie (IOF) last October without going through the observer stage, having less than 1 percent of its population speaking French, and being a British colony until 1971? Curiously, Qatar appears to have intensely lobbied African countries to support its membership in the IOF.
Paul Cochrane is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services