Phaedra Al Majid’s retraction of her claims that Qatar paid bribes to land the 2022 World Cup has not been met with the same media uproar that greeted her initial unsubstantiated allegations.
I suspect that cynicism persists – or that many, mainly British, reporters have been too vehement in their condemnation of Qatar to make a climbdown easy to accomplish.
Two London-based journalists were invited to visit Doha this week for wide-ranging interviews with Hassan Al Thawadi, the Qatar 2022 CEO, and were among the first to hear of “whistleblower” Al Majid’s U-turn.
Their work is due to be made public later on Monday, in The Guardian newspaper and on the BBC.
I would be surprised if, after visiting the understated offices at the top of the Olympic Committee tower in Doha, they do not see Qatar 2022 slightly differently from their colleagues at home.
The bid was won with massive belief, and a massive budget. Given the widespread ignorance about Qatar compared to more established nations, that budget was entirely necessary.
And there was indeed a transaction involved. They didn’t buy the World Cup. They sold it, with a sales pitch to the FIFA executive committee that put the big boys to shame.
Here’s how I think the World Cup was brought to Qatar.
Qatar won hearts and minds – other bids ticked boxes
This tiny Emirate of 1.7 million people beat the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea, three of which have a track record of successfully hosting the tournament.
Simply, Qatar had the best bid.
Taking football into new territories was not one of the criteria for the World Cup, but Qatar played this hand masterfully.
“If not now, when?” was the essence of the question posed by Sheikha Mozah Bint Naser, the wife of Qatar’s Emir, about a first tournament in the Middle East.
She spoke of millions of westerners coming to see the region for themselves for the first time (since then, the opposition to Qatar’s success has been tinged with just the tiniest hint of prejudice, so that influx is much needed).
She spoke of a young Middle Eastern population being ripe for a World Cup.
For FIFA and football’s huge marketing industry, that means consumers.
But most of all, Qatar sold a dream. Their bid video presentation was pure poetry, a half-time battle cry for an underdog that would emerge victorious against the odds.
They told a human story, one which even had an Israeli child envisioning his national side on the same pitch as Arabs at Qatar 2022.
You can pick that story apart, but the impact it has emotionally is powerful.
Then watch Australia’s and try not to cringe.
Overcoming considerable obstacles
Rewind to 2009, and Qatar 2022 looked like a pipe dream – and one brought on by some pretty top-grade gear.
Even Mohammed Bin Hammam – the now-suspended Asian football president, and a Qatari – was tentative about getting involved. The reasons? Too small, too hot, too much of an outpost.
Qatar surmounted all of those.
A small population, yes. But they made the decision one that focused not only on the pride of the whole region, but on concrete benefits, with legacy projects and stadiums that could be partially dismantled and shipped to Africa.
Too hot? That’s a tricky one. But Doha’s Al Sadd ground already has air-conditioning, and Qatar provided a demonstration to inspectors that was also environmentally-friendly.
Players are dubious, but there is no real reason to believe they will suffer in 11 years – and the technology provides a legacy for other countries with hot climates.
Fans may find the Qatar summer difficult, but my guess is that northern Europeans, particularly Brits and Scandinavians, won’t mind the miles of scorching beaches too much.
An outpost? Increasingly, no.
Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006, has a WTA and ATP tennis tournament each year, hosted the Asian Cup in January – although not without considerable hitches – has had the World Indoor Championships in athletics, MotoGP…it goes on.
There is a lot of work to do before 2022, but get it right and Qatar can repay the faith shown, in spades.
A country with audacity and ambition demonstrated as much in its bid.
Of course, there are questions.
I sometimes wonder if I simply like Qatar too much, but I can’t in all conscience demonstrate the same cynicism as some of my colleagues. I arrived here five years ago, and I’ve seen the good and the bad.
There is also the evidence presented by the Sunday Times.
Undercover reporters from the respected British broadsheet posed as lobbyists for the United States 2022 bid, and were allegedly told by FIFA executive committee members that Qatar had offered various sums to secure their votes.
Despite the fact that, if you are an ExCo member looking for cash from the US bid team, then oil-and-gas-rich Qatar is the perfect ploy to use to raise your price, the evidence provided by the Sunday Times was only able to be made public when it was disclosed under legal immunity in the British parliament.
The headline in The Times (the ST‘s sister paper) was “The dirty game: how Qatar ‘bought’ the World Cup”.
But far from detailing “explosive revelations”, the article lists a series of he-said they-said claims which are unsubstantiated.
Maybe I read too many tabloid newspapers, but if I see a headline like that then I expect the facts to be rammed home mercilessly, in a sordid tale riddled with bullet points and capitalised words. Instead it’s all just so much hot air.
The investigation undoubtedly caught ExCo members behaving extremely dubiously, and two were suspended last year as a result.
FIFA needs reform, but there isn’t much that would stand up in court in any action against Qatar 2022.
Back to the whistleblower.
Al Majid, who contacted her former employers before retracting her claims, says she came under no pressure to do so and was simply overwhelmed by how much her “lies” had snowballed.
Unfortunately, lies or otherwise, they are there, and many people’s minds will be made up.
For me, what is telling is that that Al Majid, whom I met while she was on the bid team – and who just seemed confident, smart, and doing her job – was not prepared to fully come forward with her claims.
She refused to sign an affidavit, and would not give evidence to FIFA.
My hope is that the furore over 2022 is done.
Many will remain unhappy, but it’s one World Cup – and I’m sure Australia will get its turn.
Unless real damning evidence comes out, just enjoy your football, and save judgement for 11 years’ time.
Or spend the next decade being angry.