While it was still in the middle of bidding to hold the 2022 World Cup, Qatar released a promotional video featuring Zinédine Zidane.
It’s one of those gauzy productions with a lot of soft piano in the background. The retired soccer star talks about his Algerian heritage (a very long way from Qatar) and his childhood in Marseilles (even further) in between a bunch of greeting-card poetry about the binding power of sport.
Near the end, apropos of nothing he’s said to that point, Zidane delivers the pitch: “I think it’s time for the Middle East to host the World Cup.”
According to reports, the Qatar bid committee paid Zidane US$3-million for that day’s worth of work. When Qatar was chosen the host, the fee apparently rose to US$15-million.
When people are splashing out that kind of cash on the emcee, you know they expect the party to go off flawlessly. If that’s the bar, things aren’t working out so hot for Qatar.
There are two kinds of hosts for major international events – ones interested in internal messaging, and ones who plan to do global outreach.
Sochi 2014 – that was a multibillion dollar internal memo. The Russians couldn’t have cared less what the world thought of them or their Winter Olympics. They were too busy building the secret doors in the doping lab. The man on top paid all that money so he could spend two weeks preening in front of his subjects. Ditto the Russian World Cup two years later.
Beijing 2022 will work on the same principle. The Winter Games are by the Chinese, for the Chinese, in order to celebrate the strength and accomplishments of the Chinese. The community of countries doesn’t like the way the Chinese government does business? The locals won’t be hearing about it on the national broadcaster, and they are the target audience.
On the other hand, Qatar 2022 is pure outreach. The goal here is impressing the rest of the world with how far this former backwater has come.
That starts with the cost. Qatar has delighted in telling people how much this is setting it back – more than US$200-billion. Essentially, it is doing a gut reno on a national scale.
As it turns out, talking about money was a mistake (because when is it not?). It got people thinking about how you manage such an ambitious project in a country with a population of a couple million, most of whom aren’t backhoe-driving, work-the-high-steel types.
As it turns out, you do it with cheap migrant labour. A few journos and NGOs got to sniffing around that aspect of the story. It turns out – shocker! – that those labourers are not working under a Detroit-in-the-glory-days-style unionized regime. Many are treated abominably. A fair few have ended up dead.
All of a sudden, Qatar wasn’t hosting the World Cup of the Future or The Most Expensive World Cup Ever. It was hosting the World Cup of Death.
In an effort to swing perception, Qatar tried a two-pronged approach. It has tweaked a few laws and offered a few more worker protections, while denying there is a problem in the first place. If that doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, that’s because it doesn’t.
It was a big worry when the reports began catching traction five or so years ago. But now? Forget about it. The events of the past year have made it fashionable – and in some instances, compulsory – for athletes to pull double-duty as activists.
This weekend, European qualifiers for 2022 got under way – a primo protest opportunity.
The first team to take a run at Qatar was Norway. Before the game the players came out in shirts that read “Human Rights … Respect on and off the pitch.”
It’s a pretty solid maxim of international relations that if Norway thinks you’re taking liberties, you need to sort yourself out.
As happens nowadays with every political gesture in sports, the shirt thing has become a mania. Probably because it frees players from having to put into complete sentences what they’re on about.
The Germans did their own shirt protest (each player wearing one letter in a human chain of shirts that read “HUMANRIGHTS.” Good thing the “H” and the “U” didn’t knock each other unconscious during the warmups). Then the Dutch did it. Then Norway did it again, including a challenge (”Next?”) to other countries to join it.
Ten years ago, FIFA would have launched a satellite-killing missile in order to keep this stuff off the airwaves. But in the current climate, soccer’s governing body has pretended to be thrilled to see so much free speech flying around. The last thing it wants to do is make a martyr of anyone.
It does beg the question of what exactly the players intend to do in order to protect these human rights they care so much about. What specific laws and protections would they like to see changed? Would they threaten not to go if the World Cup isn’t moved? Is a boycott on the table?
Of course not. Everybody feels very strongly that change is needed, except as it applies to them, their lifestyle and their priorities. Change is something other people should be taking care of. And right now, dammit.
Whatever the case, it’s still a problem for Qatar. If it doesn’t get US$200-billion worth of good PR out of the World Cup, it would have been better off taking out a million full-page ads in the New York Times. In fact, it could have just bought the Times and done some nice stories on Qatar in Sunday Styles.
In this sense, bajillion-dollar sports events are not so different these days from destination weddings. If you’re blowing out the budget to please yourself, you’ll more than likely end up happy.
But if you’re doing it because you think your family and friends will love you and thank you for it, you’re going to end up bitterly disappointed.