2023-08-29

World Cup 2022: Why won’t it be the “best tournament ever”?

Qatar struggled with more than a decade of doubts after it was chosen to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. From corruption allegations to abhorrent human rights violations, the Gulf state has been at odds with public opinion from the start. The top-level soccer event is coming to the Middle East for the first time, but the commercial journey of the tournament has been a bumpy one indeed.

FIFA, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone, continues to promote the idea that its decision to host the World Cup in the Middle East for the first time fulfills the mission of introducing the game to new markets. FIFA President Gianni Infantino strongly adheres to this argument. Meanwhile, his predecessor, the disgraced Sepp Blatter, admitted that choosing Qatar as the organizer was a “mistake”.

Infantino even brazenly stated that it would be “the best World Cup ever”. In order for them to be so, however, many questions must be answered. Whether it’s about excessive carbon dioxide emissions, or concerns about the accommodation and transport of fans, bribing fans from other countries, exploitation and deaths of employees, harassment. You can list endlessly, because practically nothing is right with Qatar, not even talking about the “best Championships”.

However, as it always happens, the “show must go on”, so the most controversial World Championship in history is about to begin. It’s hard to remember that the World Cup has ever started with so much baggage, which is quite a feat after previous tournaments played in poor Brazil, or Russia bombing its neighbors today.

As the start of the games approaches, Qatar is trying to whitewash as much as possible under these circumstances. Nasser Al Khater, general manager of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, told Sky News in mid-October that gay fans will be able to “show their affection”, zones will be set up for drunk fans to sober up (despite alcohol being either banned, or so expensive that no one will be drunk anyway) and 95 percent of the tickets have been sold.

When asked about the working conditions of migrants, Al Khater said that those who raise the issue “are not experts in what they are talking about.” What’s more, he added that sustained criticism of the tournament could “possibly” be considered racist! Qatari’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani was less diplomatic, describing the country’s critics as “arrogant” and describing negative media coverage as “misinformation.” Qataris do not live well with journalists, as evidenced by the expulsion of a Danish reporter, threatening him with the destruction of the camera, or even the refusal to grant accreditation and entry to the country for Danish journalists. The Danes in particular went on a warpath with the sheikhs when they openly criticized the organizers and their sponsor released black shirts as a sign of protest and football ‘mourning’.

And hostility is not in Qatar’s interest. This is a gigantic opportunity for this small country to build a nation, its branding and use of geographic attributes, especially oil and gas, to which Qatar has access. But Al Khater and Infantino’s desire to focus on football, which is probably what anyone would prefer to do, is a distasteful mix of ignorance and naivety given the World Cup’s global stature and history. After the 2018 World Cup, Fifa said this edition was watched by more than half the world. I wonder what he will say after the end of these Championships…

The World Cup is an opportunity to diversify the country’s economy. It’s a way to stimulate tourism. After all, Qatar is becoming the destination of the most important sporting event. By far the smallest country to ever host a World Cup, the country is estimated to have spent as much as $300 billion on infrastructure. However, the size and scale of the organization do not justify FIFA’s decision to bet on the Arabian Peninsula.

Sponsors are careful.

Despite all of the above, the commercial appeal of the FIFA World Cup remains high. The event is reportedly on track to reach the $5.4 billion in revenue generated by the previous edition. Global partners including Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa remain in place. Local companies such as GWC and Ooredoo are also involved. However, FIFA also relied on Qatari companies for two of the seven spots in its top sponsorship category. In March, QatarEnergy became the last global partner to bring in $93 million in revenue last year. Other regional sponsors include: Budweiser, Hisense, McDonald’s, Mengniu and Vivo. These brands will not enter the tournament unaware of all the critical remarks. However, how and whether they will react to negative opinions and controversies will be the subject of careful observation of the world’s media and certainly ours.

Global brands associated with the World Cup will have to acknowledge the cultural nuances of the host country. However, the aim is to do this in the most inoffensive way, otherwise there is a risk of alienating international consumers who are already rightly skeptical of the country. The focus will be on business, not being a moral arbiter. The Winter World Cup also means that the typical way of activating brands around the event has been disrupted.

Do fans expect companies to take a stand? In September, a global public opinion poll commissioned by Amnesty International revealed that 66 percent of those polled believed that FIFA’s corporate partners and sponsors should publicly call on the world’s football governing body to compensate migrant workers who suffered in the run-up to the World Cup. The survey, conducted by YouGov, included 17,477 adults in 15 countries. Despite this, only four of Fifa’s 14 corporate partners and sponsors of the World Cup – Adidas, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s – expressed their support for such financial compensation.

Companies must ensure that their own policies remain intact and that their activities do not involve human rights violations. As sponsors, they have a huge influence on FIFA to do its job better and to commit to this compensation fund to support or treat employees who have suffered abuse in the past, says Amnesty International.

Infantino once again expects record viewership, forecasting 5 billion people. The final’s viewership is also projected to surpass the 2018 final, which was watched live by a total of 1.12 billion viewers.

Other World Cup experiences

Fans accustomed to the Western atmosphere of the FIFA World Cup need to keep in mind the culture of Qatar. The aforementioned issue of alcohol returns here, which (as in a Muslim country) is very limited. Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, confirmed that fans will not be allowed to drink in stadiums, but alcohol will be available in fan zones, some hotels and other specific venues.

Regarding public displays of affection, whether by homosexuals or heterosexuals, Al Thawadi stated that “it is not part of our culture.” He seemed to deny that couples should nervously glance over their shoulder. “Very clear and simple, everyone is welcome in Qatar,” continued Al Thawadi. But probably everyone realizes that the reality will look different.

“That’s why people come here, to create bonds on a person-to-person level, to develop mutual respect.” It sounds caricatured what words people use when they don’t respect anyone. There are also many voices that compromise is desirable on both sides. Still, homosexuality remains illegal in Qatar, and the country, where Sharia law is the main source of legislation, remains reluctant to adapt its laws banning homosexuality.

Due to the fact that about 1.2 million guests are expected, fans also have problems with booking accommodation. The BBC reported that Qatar has only 30,000 hotel rooms, 80% of which have already been booked by FIFA for teams, officials and sponsors. Shared rooms, empty apartments, villas, fan villages and tents in the desert have been proposed as alternatives. Cruise ships have even been converted into floating hotels. It’s an organizational nightmare for fans.

The Qataris organized the tournament based on their perception and attitude towards the world, not always fully understanding what football fans around the world expect. And of course, it must be said that the product itself is incredibly impressive. The facilities they have, the infrastructure they have created, the seriousness with which they approached this event. But that doesn’t necessarily make it authentic. And when you add to this the means by which these effects were achieved, it will not charm anyone but Infantino.

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