The 2022 World Cup hosts are excelling on the pitch in the UAE but political turmoil in the region and poor crowds mean Fifa’s fervent interest is not matched across the globe
Barney Ronay – The Guardian
When the Qatar 2022 World Cup was announced in Zurich by a sweating, slightly fevered Sepp Blatter, the idea was floated almost immediately that this could become a regional tournament; that Qatar’s gulf neighbours might share the burden and the riches, bringing them together in one great happy football-stinking embrace.
It is a theme Fifa has returned to even as the Gulf itself has atomised in the eight years since, with the suggestion still out there that an expanded 42-team tournament could bring Qatar’s neighbours on board.
Last month Blatter’s successor as Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, announced during a speech to – for some reason – the G20 world leaders’ forum: “Football can bring us together and make the world a more prosperous, educated, equal and perhaps even peaceful place.” The only sensible response to which is, of course, a sardonically raised set of eyebrows, the real-world equivalent of the chin-stroking-puzzled-face emoji. But then football has always liked to sell itself as an intangible global force for good, as opposed to a highly successful global force for merchandising, sponsorship and soft power.
From the branding of Qatar 2022 as an underdog “new frontier” to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s famous “ball of peace” – a Fifa-backed plan that saw Sven travelling the world getting assorted embattled groups to kick the same football, thereby bringing about, er, world peace – there is a general doublespeak about football’s ever more complex place in the tides of geopolitics.
It is a process laid out in the most fascinating way at the current Asian Cup. The tournament has already entered its endgame. Japan beat Iran 3-0 in the first semi-final on Monday. In the second, scheduled for 6pm local time on Tuesday in the Mohamed bin Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi, Qatar will face the hosts, the UAE, in the second of the tournament’s “Blockade Derbies”.
For Qatar this represents real footballing progress and a shot at a first ever final in this competition. Football aside, it is also perhaps the most fascinating fixture in world football’s calendar right now, a meeting of the sport’s two most aggressively expansionist states – Manchester City versus Paris Saint-Germain by proxy – and a primer on exactly how Fifa, football and Gulf state politics remain irrevocably tangled.
Qatar is, of course, in a state of blockade by the UAE and its immediate neighbours. The current stand-off reached a nadir last summer when the Saudis announced plans to build a trench along the shared border filled with sewerage, effectively turning Qatar into an island cut off from the rest of the world by a river of radioactive human excrement. Quick, Sven! The ball of peace!
None of this has stopped the current tournament rolling on well enough. There has already been one Blockade Derby – Qatar beating Saudi Arabia 2-0 in the group stages. Some booing aside, the game passed off without rancour, although it is this lack of obvious fire, and indeed any overwhelming public interest, that has been a concern.
Crowds have been spare to middling. Five thousand watched Iran play their opening game against Yemen in the 40,000-capacity Bin Zayed. Some fans have reported being asked by officials to move to seats directly in line with the TV cameras, while there have been unconfirmed reports of mass ticket giveaways.
Otherwise, as a regional dry run for Qatar 2022 – and consumed at one remove – it has looked to be a fun and occasionally sparky tournament. Temperatures have hovered manageably between 25 and 30 degrees.
The success of the Qatari team will come as a huge relief back home after a series of painstaking false starts. The semi-finalists have been a potent counter-attacking force under the former Barcelona youth coach Félix Sánchez Bas, with five wins from five, 12 goals scored and none conceded.
Of more concern is the way this has all bubbled away largely unnoticed beneath Europe’s steamrollering winter club programme. As the clock ticks down there is as yet no solution to the logistical problem of what happens to all this scheduled football during the World Cup winter of November and December 2022.
What is certain is leagues will be suspended. Broadcasters will be miffed. Revenues will be interrupted. Deals will be cut. As Fifa and Uefa continue their power struggle over football’s hyper-lucrative future, it all feels a bit like a game of global power-Jenga, with interests and influence stacked up over one another in a teetering superstructure. Its point of gravity will continue to linger over the Gulf, a source of heat and light that draws every part of the modern footballing world into its orbit.
Even as its national team was battling through to the last four, Qatar released pictures of a glowering José Mourinho being led around half-built World Cup sites, Mourinho trying hard to smile and look interested but resembling instead a furiously indignant minor Soviet despot dragged from his bed and forced at gunpoint to wear a hard hat and frown over architects’ plans as part of his presidential captivity deal.
The same day it was reported that the well-known human rights campaigner David Beckham would be providing his football services to Saudi Arabia as part of the Saudi’s National Transformation Programme, a £60bn entertainment power-play also featuring Broadway-style musical productions, a monster truck rally, a Pamplona-style bull run and “hologram performances by dead musicians”.
As things stand, Fifa will meet in Rio in February to discuss the next steps in its Gulf-centred four-year cycle. It is a conference some had previously suggested Uefa executives might boycott over Fifa’s Saudi-backed plans for a new global competition.
In the meantime, as Qatar and the UAE prepare to face each other on the pitch, the notion of football as a tool for cohesion rather than just another carpetbagger in the middle of blockade and vested interests continues to look mildly delusional.