THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
Call it soccer, football, kurat alqadam, or by any other name it goes by, there is no denying that this is a game of passion that stirs the soul and brings forth the rawest of emotions among players, and even among the most hardened fans. For those uninitiated to football, watching 20 players chasing after a ball in an attempt to get it past two other people standing guard between two posts, may not seem all that exciting, but for the frenzied fans watching the game live in a stadium, or on television in some distant place, there is nothing more adrenaline-pumping.
Often described as the most popular and inclusive game on earth, football is estimated to be played by more than 250 million people worldwide, with billions more following it on media, or standing on the sidelines to cheer and jeer the players. For these ardent players and fans worldwide, the quadrennial FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of their sport. If you think differently, go ask any of the millions of fans who have gathered for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Despite the game of soccer and the World Cup evolving over time with the introduction of new rules and techniques, the founding mission of FIFA, the international governing body of football, to develop the game, and to ‘Touch the World’ and ‘Build a Better Future’ for all of humanity, still resonates with everyone touched by football. This was as true in 1930 to the players and crowds watching the first World Cup game in Uruguay, as it is to those playing and witnessing the game when the first whistle for the World Cup 2022 goes off today in Qatar.
The staging of the first-ever games in the Middle East and in the Arab world was not expected to be without its share of controversies, but for Qatar this has come in spades. The country’s journey since being awarded the right to host the tournament in December 2010, has been anything but tranquil. It began with a bump right from the start, following allegations of improprieties involved in Qatar being awarded the tournament. Although the accusations and assertions were swiftly refuted and rejected by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), which is the country’s top authority tasked with the planning and execution of the tournament, the suspicions still linger.
Even while these allegations of corruption remained, Qatar had to confront sharp criticism from international human rights groups and activists on the appalling treatment and scores of deaths among migrant workers brought in to work on the infrastructure for the games. In response, the government began implementing several labor reform policies in 2014, but stridently maintained that migrant workers were not being entrapped and exploited to work on infrastructure projects.
However, in a ‘Reality Check’ report published in 2021, Amnesty International said that practices of human rights abuse were still rife. Qatar responded by noting that its labor system was still a work in progress and that these would continue even after the games. For its part, FIFA urged World Cup teams to focus on football in Qatar and not let the sport be dragged into ideological or political battles.
Adding to the growing litany of protestations, gender-choice activists then joined the fray by citing Qatar’s poor record in the treatment of sexual and gender (SGM) minorities. The organizers stressed that everyone, no matter what their sexual or gender orientation or background, is welcome during the tournament. But the authorities also called on fans and players to respect the country’s culture and traditions.
Qatar’s woes in hosting the games did not end with the accusations of probity, human rights violations and discriminations. To placate football associations and players, as well as entice fans wary of the scorching heat of summer in Qatar, the country agreed to transfer the traditional holding of the World Cup in the June-July period to a cooler November-December window. But this schedule shift meant the World Cup would then clash with the majority of major domestic football competitions in Europe, where summer is usually the off-season.
Following discussions with FIFA and football associations in Europe, most of the 2022/23 season championships have now been put on pause for the World Cup. Even as the dust from many of these challenges were beginning to settle, Qatar had to then confront a four-year diplomatic and political crisis with its immediate neighbors that began in 2017 and was finally resolved only in 2021. Meanwhile, the onset of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 threw another spanner in efforts to organize the games as planned.
The fact that this tiny desert nation has been able to tide over all these controversies and challenges and host the World Cup on schedule, speaks volumes about the commitment of the organizers, and the resolve of the country’s leadership, to stage the tournament, no matter the cost. And, when it comes to cost, the 2022 World Cup has been prodigiously expensive by any scale. Estimates now put the total financial cost to Qatar at around US$220 billion.
To put this figure in perspective, it is estimated that the total bill to Qatar will exceed the cost of all the 21 previous World Cups combined. It is also multiple times higher than the previously most expensive World Cups held in Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018, which cost the host countries less than $15 billion each. And remember, this figure of $220 billion is without factoring in the additional costs to the environment from the tournament being held in a small arid desert nation of less than 11,500 square kilometers, which is already one of the most water-stressed in the world.
While the more tangible costs for holding the tournament can be counted in dollars and riyals, there is also a less tangible but nevertheless significant socio-cultural cost to the host country that is often disregarded. With a population of less than three million, the impact of a sudden deluge of more than 1.2 million visitors from around the world, bringing their own cultures, religions, and behaviors, could impact the customs and traditions of this tiny, relatively conservative nation. Although the outcome of this influence currently remains uncertain, it could manifest over time.
Economists and sports finance analysts admit that most countries hosting the World Cup pay a horrendously high cost for the privilege, with very little return on their investment. Despite this, FIFA continues to place very exacting and expensive terms on the infrastructure that nations have to develop to host the World Cup. Several host countries in the past have ended up paying a heavy price for their brief moment of basking in the global spotlight, often enduring the financial burden for years after the tournament ends.
With millions of people attending the games and billions more watching on television, you may well ask, how could these mega events end up making a loss? To set the record right, no one claimed that these sporting spectacles are a loss. Official audit figures show that the bulk of profits in World Cup tournaments come from the sale of tickets, marketing, and from auctioning the rights to broadcast the event around the world.
For instance, FIFA reportedly sold the TV rights for the 2018 World Cup in Russia to broadcasters around the world for over $4.5 billion, and a further $1 billion came in from marketing rights. But this huge profit does not flow to the host country’s treasury; it belongs entirely to FIFA. When the curtains to a World Cup come down, FIFA walks away with the money bag, leaving the host nation to foot the bill. In fairness, FIFA does dole out a small token amount to the host for conducting the tournament and for paying the prize-money.
But then, when it comes to costs and expenses, Qatar is probably an anomaly. The energy-rich nation, which sits on some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, can afford to wave off the multi-billion dollar expenditure as a pittance to pay for their moment of glory. Nonetheless, economic forecasts now indicate that although Qatar’s economy will grow by 3.4 percent in 2022 and 2023, thanks to the World Cup boost, it will slow down in the years ahead. It is imperative that the government capitalize on the substantial infrastructure developments in place, and build on the soft power generated from the World Cup, to attract international investments and businesses to its economy.
Economic pressures notwithstanding, hosting the FIFA World Cup is seen by Qatar as a strategic move to advance the country’s foreign policy objectives, and to strengthen its interests in various fields. It also helps promote the Qatar National Vision 2030 that aims to transform the country ‘to an advanced society capable of achieving sustainable development and securing a high standard of living for its people for generations to come’. Hosting the tournament is also an occasion to burnish its international image and highlight the national brand through public diplomacy.
Although the monetary benefits from hosting the World Cup will in final tally be negligible to Qatar, there are other tangible legacies that the tournament leaves behind, which could benefit the country in the future. These include new hotels, apartments, leisure and entertainment venues, as well as an advanced rail and road network, a brand new airport, and plans for a new sea port that could be among the biggest in the region.
However, it is the intangible legacies that the tournament hopefully generates which could prove to be most beneficial to Qatar, and Qataris, in the long run. Among these are the individual and collective pride generated in the country from being able to successfully host a mega global sporting event. Reflecting this while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, said: “The world will see that medium-sized and small countries are able to host global events with great success’’.
Other legacies that Qatar hopes to achieve are also intangible but more universal. Qatar’s Supreme Committee is implementing several legacy projects as part of the tournament, including promoting ‘Generation Amazing’. A youth movement that aims to leverage the transformative power of football to inspire, educate, and empower youth, Generation Amazing will strive to attain social inclusiveness, to protect and sustain the environment, and to achieve positive social change in local communities and around the world. We sincerely hope that this will be the lasting legacy of the Qatar World Cup 2022.