If instincts do actually plead, then mine are pleading with me not to write this piece, but bollox to that. It’s been 9 years in the silent making, and on the eve of the World Cup in Doha that I allegedly kissed ass for in an (in)famous article for ESPN back in 2013, I thought I’d re-visit this dangerous ground – more aware now, of course, of the bilious nature of social media than I was back then. Better writers than me are still being lynched for attempting to say anything positive about the event, so I’d better mind my proverbials, but anyway….whether or not silence is more golden, here’s my little cliff-leap contribution.
Perhaps the best way to begin this piece is to confirm that I finally think it’s a shit-show, of course. I failed to say that back in 2013 because I felt, stupidly perhaps, that the Qataris (that is, about three guys who run the Supreme Committee) had it within their powers to change things. I wrote that very sentence back then. It was well within their powers to solve the migrant-worker issues, it was mildly within their powers to change or adapt their legislative views (if not their cultural ones) on any other practice other than heterosexuality, it was technically feasible to air-cool the stadia if they really did think it was going to take place in the heat of summer, alcohol would be served (if Budweiser can be defined as such) and the massive investment that the physical re-shaping of the little Gulf state and the whole shebang has involved – 220 billion bucks at the most recent estimate – made it fairly clear to me, even back then, that it would take place.
It’s worth recalling that when I was invited (in my journo hat) to a ‘business conference’ in Doha, the Guardian had published its first exposé of the migrant-worker abuses only a couple of months before. The shit-storm had already begun to blow up in the desert, and I guess I should have declined a paddle in its choppy waters, if you’ll excuse the metaphor-mixing. But I hadn’t been asked to write about the migrant workers – it wasn’t my brief although I’d seen it first-hand when I’d lived in Doha in 2010, working for the British Council on a 6-month education project. The abuse of migrant workers in Qatar did not begin with the awarding of the World Cup, but the ratcheted-up scale of the enterprise certainly brought it into clearer focus.
It also made some sense to invite me. I already had some insight into the place, and it was an entirely realistic one. I’d been well treated as a professional, but I have two eyes and a reasonable ability to draw conclusions. I’d been recruited to train (male) teachers in the methodology of working in your subject discipline through English (called CLIL, if you want to know), and it was an interesting experience. The male teachers were from other Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Jordan particularly, and when I attempted to critique some of the more rigid aspects of their teaching methods, the answer was always the same. ‘Phil – I am sorry, but if I do that…..night-flight’. What ‘night-flight’ meant was the threat of a premature return to less lucrative teaching posts in their home countries, and so they toed the Qatari line. The phrase became a joke for the trainers, a shorthand to mean that our suggestions were falling on deaf ears, but for the poor dudes working in the construction industry, ‘night-flight’ was a much nastier and more frequent reality.
I remember on one occasion walking across from our flat at 2 a.m. to complain to some migrant builders who were drilling and operating a crane in the muggy darkness. Identifying the Indian master of ceremonies, I approached and said something along the lines of ‘Come on man! We can’t get to sleep. And besides, what you’re doing is surely illegal?’ As I finished the sentence the chap creased up with laughter. Understanding the unfortunate truth of what he meant, I shrugged and walked back to our flat.
Anyway – back to the conference, three years down the line. Not many western football journos had tried their luck on any other perspective – up to that point in 2013 – than the one of growing disdain and resentment at the awarding of the finals to Qatar (at the time nobody mentioned Russia) and the curious conviction that the event would never actually take place. I said that it would, and I lost my little number at ESPN because it looked like I was a part of the conspiracy. Fair cop. But as a Dutch engineer whispered in my ear at the conference, rubbing his hands in some glee as Alan Shearer droned on about how happy he was to be there – ‘This is the most out-sourced event in human history. You think they’re going to pull out of this now? No way. All the contracts are signed. There’s no way back’.
Given that obvious reality, I tried to look for some positives. The tone of the eventual article, strangled into a messy structure by an anonymous American editor, made it look like a puff-piece. Maybe it was. We all make mistakes, although I was invited on the written understanding that although they’d pay my flight I would be neither paid nor given gifts. Nobody asked me to write a glowing report, but sure – they were hoping I would. I was just the first of many to come, at least four years before the first of a wave of minor British politicians were quietly invited to similar ‘business conferences’.
I’d actually planned two pieces, one for the New York Times and the other for ESPN (for whom I’d been writing since 2001) but the NYT wisely pulled out on learning that the Qataris were paying for my flight. ESPN, always up for a freebie, gave it the green light but when the shit hit the proverbial they covered their corporate arses and dropped me like a dirty stone. That’s how big corporations work. I’d have done the same. So the first article – about my 13 year-old son being signed by Al Arabi, my return to the club and my meeting with Uli Stielike, my interview with Roberto Olabe at Aspire…..none of it saw the light of day because when I sent them both to ESPN the editor hadn’t seen that I was trying to soften up the reader a little with the first article. Or maybe he had. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to justify the trip, and I was probably the wrong guy at the wrong time. Please don’t respond with hate mail. As Chaucer wrote – I fucked up and moved on.
Now, nine years later, on the eve of the weirdest World Cup since 1930, I’m massively disappointed by the inability of the oligarchic Supreme Committee to actually address those 2013 concerns. They’ve addressed them superficially (the Kafala system, for example), but in the end they stand condemned, because despite their Harvard Business-School discourse and their obvious sophistication they have never actually confronted the main elephant in their planning room – the fact that the event would be live, with real visitors from all walks of human life, a majority of whom enjoy the relative freedoms of western democracy and better beer than Budweiser. Hassan Al Thawadi is a very sharp guy – I saw that first-hand. But the Supreme Committee over which he has presided since 2011 has never really worked on the principles of critical input. Instead, it has mostly concerned itself with the papering over of the cracks – a business principle of sorts – but a dysfunctional one. Al Thawadi and his tightly-protected circle of friends earn the dysfunctional adjective because they had the power to do something half-decent, and they’ve failed. Qatar has now become the whipping-boy for the world’s desperate need for virtue-signalling, which does not mean that the virtue-signalling is wrong. Saudi Arabia makes Qatar look like a snow-flaking democratic paradise, but now the World Cup’s hosts are being routinely referred to as a ‘brutal’ state. So much for ‘legacy’.
Bald-eagle Infantino may be in the unfortunate position of having to make the absurd appear coherent, with his imbecilic appeal to de-politicise an event that was a geopolitical boardgame in the first place – one that almost certainly encouraged Putin to feel that he too could get away with murder (as it were)….but these ludicrous attempts to dignify the whole clusterfuck just contribute to the metaphorical cloud that casts such a long shadow over this sun-drenched event. And as the potentially most important parallel event in the 4 billion years of this planet’s existence, COP-OUT 27, threatens to fizzle out in a bonfire of bitching vanities, all we seem to care about is whether there should be cheaper beer on sale outside vaginally-shaped stadia. This is how the world may indeed end, not with a bang but a Wimpy.
And I still haven’t read an article that talks about the football, bizarrely. It actually might turn out to be a decent tournament, with no clear favourites. I just hope Iran get stuffed, Denmark win it, and Real Sociedad’s sole representative, the great Takefusa Kubo, scores a hat-trick against Spain. I’m pissed off with Luis Enrique for not taking Mikel Merino, in case you ask. Apart from that, whatever.
I actually reckon that lots of good things are now going to happen regarding future World Cups, because although FIFA can always be counted on for corruption and incompetence (it’s their slogan) it’s unlikely that the next World Cup will be awarded to North Korea, although you never know. As the great Jarvis Cocker once sang, ‘C***s are still running the world’ but at least we all know who most of them are now. Even the dimmest football lout now understands that there is a concept out there called human rights. If Blatter, Platini and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy have bequeathed us anything, it is that.
Phil Ball, San Sebastián. November 19