The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

Michel Platini was expecting a private audience with the president of France when he arrived for lunch on a chilly day in November 2010. Instead, as Platini, a legendary French player who in retirement had risen to become one of the most powerful men in soccer, stepped into a lavish salon inside the president’s official residence, he noticed immediately that the man he had come to see, Nicolas Sarkozy, was absent.

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The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

Instead, Platini was pointed toward a small group chatting across the room, and to a discussion that would alter the course of his career, stain his reputation, and even change the sport to which he had devoted his life. Platini smiled as he was formally introduced to the lunch’s guests of honour: Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, the prime minister of Qatar, and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who would, within a few years, replace his father as the country’s absolute ruler. The Qataris had come to Paris to discuss a plan that bordered on the fantastical: Their tiny, ridiculously wealthy Gulf state chose to host the Football World Cup.

Platini, a vice president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, had long been cool with the idea. A year earlier, he had told friends that he thought allowing Qatar a country without any meaningful soccer tradition, one lacking basic infrastructure like stadiums to stage the biggest sporting event in the world would prove disastrous for FIFA. Only two months earlier, he had confided to a rival United States bid that he chose the Qatar Football World Cup tournament to go everywhere but Qatar.

At some point that afternoon, though, Platini’s reservations melted away. What happened to change his mind over lunch with a late-arriving Sarkozy and the two Qataris remains, more than a decade later, resolutely obscure, and fiercely contested. Platini himself has offered at least two distinct versions of events in both he said his vote was his own choice, and not reflective of outside influence and in 2019 he was detained, but not charged, by French investigators said to be looking into the meeting.

By then, though, the deal was done A week after the lunch, inside a cavernous conference hall in Zurich, Qatar was confirmed as the host of the Qatar Football World Cup. The world’s most popular sport has been reckoning with the consequences of that decision ever since. American investigators and FIFA itself have since said multiple FIFA board members accepted bribes to swing the vote to Qatar. Platini was not among them. A broad corruption investigation into how FIFA conducts business led to dozens of arrests. Those cases and others aided bring down the entire leadership of FIFA, and nearly toppled the institution itself.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

But the decision also irreversibly altered the economics of top-flight soccer. Having won the Football World Cup, Qatar quickly went to establish itself as a true power in the sport. Within a year of the lunch at the Elysee Palace, Qatari activities had bought the French team Paris St.-Germain, and a Qatari-maintained sports network had begun pouring money into European soccer by buying up broadcasting rights. That influx of cash not only impacted what top players won and where they played: Then it also quickly threatened to drive an incompatible wedge between a handful of the sport’s richest squads and the rest of the game.

At the same time, it inspired a frenzy of construction as a tiny Gulf country was, in force, remade in a stunning nation-building project that, according to human rights groups, cost thousands of migrant workers their lives, a figure Qatar denies. And now, with long-feared cultural disputes playing out, it has come at a point that once seemed unthinkable: hundreds of the world’s finest soccer players and more than a million followers gathering in a thumb-shaped peninsula in the Persian Gulf, ready for the tournament that changed the game.

For much of the 20th century, Qatar was a barren Persian Gulf backwater better known for pearl diving than power politics. Its people were poor, lagging far behind their Saudi neighbours. Then Qatar struck gas. The discovery in 1971 of the world’s largest gas field led to the first transformation of Qatar: turning it into one of the wealthiest countries in the world and emboldening its leaders to see their nation not just as an appendage of its wealthier neighbours, but as a true geopolitical rival. The quest to host the Football World Cup, then, was just another step: the chance to publish themselves, to tell their story, on a truly worldwide stage.

Qatar has for years denied criticisms of its effort to win the Football World Cup as jealousy or, worse, Western racism. But having the money and the ambition to host the tournament was one thing. Winning the right to do so was quite another. And in 2010, that was Qatar’s biggest problem. A week or so before the two dozen members of FIFA’s director committee including Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, and Platini were scheduled to choose which of the five competing bids would win the right to host the Qatar Football World Cup, Harold Mayne-Nicholls landed in Zurich.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

A suave, soccer-obsessed Chilean, Mayne-Nicholls wielded considerable power, at least in theory. He had led the assessment squad dispatched by FIFA to assess each of the bidders, and the evaluation reports his team created had the potential to swing the vote. His verdict on Qatar the product of a three-day visit to Doha in September 2009 was hardly a ringing endorsement. While the country had scaled back on some of its initial plans, which involved building an artificial island big enough to be seen from space, the inspectors still harboured insurmountable doubts.

Qatar was too small. It was a huge problem for the organization, Mayne-Nicholls stated. And No. 2: In the Northern Hemisphere summer, the traditional window for playing the Football World Cup, it was simply too hot. Qatar had gamely tried to assuage those fears by building a small stadium to demonstrate the futuristic air-conditioning system it thought would ensure all the games would be played in close to ideal conditions. Mayne-Nicholls was amazed, but the issue remained.

“The problem would be for supporters on nongame days, he stated. It is 38 or 40 degrees Celsius in June, he said, or more than one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It is impossible to do anything on the street.”

Even the Qataris believed his verdict was a crushing blow. One official who worked on Qatar’s bid admitted the evaluation report was embarrassing. The more Mayne-Nicholls talked to the various administrators and plutocrats on the FIFA board, though, the more he was struck by how little his presentation had done to diminish support for Qatar among the men who held votes. Only one, he said, had asked to see the full reports. Most seemed to have made up their minds.

“They were telling me that the Qataris were coming strongly, he stated. They were the ones that voted. I immediately realized that Qatar would win.”

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

He was not the only one. On the eve of the vote, a consultant with Qatar’s bid recalled turning to a senior Qatari bid official and asking how things looked. He was surprised by the belief of the response: It has been done. He was right. Even before Blatter opened the packet to confirm that the Middle East would host the Football World Cup for the first time, Al Jazeera, the news network based in Doha, had broadcast news of Qatar’s victory. The fallout, though, was just beginning. Two members of the committee had not even been permitted to vote, having been suspended after being recorded by undercover reporters trying to sell their ballots.

More claims of corruption and bribery followed. The United States Department of Justice accused three South American voters of accepting seven-figure bribes to select Qatar. Within a few years, every one of the twenty-two members of the committee who had participated in the vote had been accused of or charged with corruption. Dozens of other executives had been arrested. Most were forced out of FIFA, and numerous were barred from soccer altogether.

Even those at the very top of the rotten pyramid had not escaped. Blatter reluctantly announced he would resign, then was banned anyway. Platini was forced out, too, over an unrelated ethics charge that led to a fraud trial in Switzerland. He and Blatter were both acquitted. For a while, it seemed as if FIFA itself might not survive a decision of its own making. Qatar’s leaders had been expecting the questions. As the country fine-tuned its bid for the Football World Cup, its representatives spent hours in media training sessions with public-relations consultants drafted in from Europe, trying to craft answers to potentially awkward explorations about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and its attitude toward gay rights.

It was uneasy ground for even the most senior officials, given that homosexuality was, and is, illegal in Qatar. In one media training session viewed by The New York Times, Sheikh Mohammed, the youngest son of the country’s ruler at the time, responded to a mock question on the matter by insisting that all tourists to the country would be welcomed.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

When a media trainer answered by pointing out that a journalist might follow up by asking how that can be squared with laws that criminalize homosexuality, the prince responded, it is illegal in most countries. Unclear, his eyes darted from side to side. Isn’t it? Confronted at a different point about the country’s treatment of migrant workers, he insisted that Qatar has already taken the necessary steps to protect them. Everybody respects the migrant workers here, he stated. As it turned out, all the preparation was in vain. The questions never came. Instead, the news media’s focus during the bidding was on the country’s size, its searing summer temperatures, and largely if beer would be available in the Muslim nation during the tournament.

“I sat in on so numerous interviews, and no one would ask, spoke Phaedra al-Majid, a former media advisor to the bid who later alleged Qatar of breaking ethical rules to secure the tournament. It hardly mattered. No one supposed Qatar was going to win.”

It was only after it had secured the tournament that the tricky questions came. And they have not stopped. Qatar’s vision for the Football World Cup did not just need the building of seven stadiums and the refurbishment of an eighth. The country also wanted an entire network of roads and rails to transport fans between the arenas and dozens upon dozens of hotels to house them nothing less than an utterly redrawn country, rising from the sand in a $220 billion nation-building project.

To achieve it, Qatar recruited hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from some of the poorest corners of the planet, swelling the country’s population which grew by 13.2 percent in the last year alone and drawing intense focus on the labourers’ treatment, their rights, and their living conditions. This event was entirely built on the backs of migrant workers, on an unequal balance of power, told Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. These were very predictable abuses. Worldwide Tickets and Hospitality offers Football World Cup tickets for the Qatar Football World Cup at the best prices. Football fanatics and buy Football World Cup Tickets at exclusively discounted prices.

Though Qatar has now at FIFA’s behest stopped most construction projects and sent home most of the workers before the Football World Cup starts, it remains reliant on introduced labour: Security professionals from Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, and France, among other countries, have been imported to bolster an overmatched local police force. A new wave of migrant workers has landed, meanwhile, to staff the hotels, staff the stadiums, and serve the food. The country’s small size, though, has done nothing to contain its ambition. This summer, for example, Qatar announced that as part of the FIFA World Cup it would hold a dance music festival at Ras Abu Fontas, just south of Doha, featuring a fire-breathing, laser-shooting spider borrowed from the Glastonbury music festival in England.

“In a few months earlier a tournament, nearly all countries are scaling down, stated Ronan Evain, a director of Football Fans Europe. Qatar has just kept scaling up.”

The aim, organizers speak, is to ensure an unparalleled fan event. It will certainly be a different one: Qatar shocked FIFA and fans alike on Friday by agreeing, only days before the tournament’s opening match, to go back on its promise to allow the sale of beer at its eight Football World Cup stadiums. It will still be available in certain FIFA World Cup areas, including for several dedicated hours a day in fan zones, but there was no denying Friday that the hosts had, late, reset the tournament’s traditions to content local rules.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

The about-face raised new questions about whether everyone particularly LGBTQ+ admirers will face the kind of welcome that Qatar’s organizing committee and FIFA have regularly guaranteed. This month, Khalid Salman, a former Qatari national collaborator now deployed as an ambassador for the Football World Cup, did not seem to have heard the organizers’ messaging. Same-gender attraction is haram here, he told a German documentary, using an Arabic word that translates as forbidden. It is haram because it is broken in the mind.

Javier Tebas was furious. The outspoken president of Spain’s top league had come to Doha along with delegates from the most powerful bodies in soccer: FIFA; the rest of the game’s major leagues; and the European Club Association, an organization that represents the interests of the teams themselves. Their task was to answer a question that nobody had ever needed to ask: When, precisely, should the Football World Cup be held?

In the run-up to the vote in Zurich, and for numerous years afterwards, Qatar had insisted there was no reason the tournament FIFA World Cup could not be held in its traditional window in the European summer. The searing Gulf heat, the organizers claimed, would not be a problem, because of proposals to outfit each stadium with the air-conditioning system that had impressed Mayne-Nicholls and his team. By 2013, however, the mood had changed. A FIFA task force was founded to assess the possibility of moving the Football World Cup. In early 2015 it reported back, suggesting shifting the contest to November and December, right in the middle of the European season that drives much of the attention, and the money, in the game.

As he came to Doha for talks on the topic that year, Tebas guessed the battle lines were drawn: The leagues and the clubs were against the dates FIFA was proposing, Tebas told. That unanimity did not last, though. The clubs agreed after FIFA boosted the payments, they would get for issuing players for the tournament. Tebas recalled pounding his firsthand the table in frustration when he was told. It was all for show, he told. It felt like we were being deceived. In many ways, though, Europe’s unwanted hiatus is the least of the consequences of FIFA’s decision to hand Qatar the FIFA World Cup. A brief pause to a single season is far less significant than a yearslong shift in the game’s landscape.

It was not simply the fate of the Football World Cup that was under debate at that meeting of Platini, Sarkozy, and the Qatari delegation at the Elysee Palace in November 2010. So, too, was the future of Paris St.-Germain, the club Sarkozy supported. Its president at the time, Sebastien Bazin, was also current in Sarkozy’s office that day. Qatar needed not only to buy the squad, but then to establish a sports broadcaster to show its matches, and to bankroll the rest of French soccer. Less than a year later, it was doing just that.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

Backed by Qatar Sports Investments’ bottomless funds, P.S.G. began a lavish spending spree that no domestic rival could even consider, acquiring star after star as it looked to overtake Europe’s traditional powers. The moves, individually and taken together, would have a profound and lasting impact on European soccer. In the summer of 2017, P.S.G. flexed its financial muscles most boldly yet: It signed Neymar, the Brazilian forward, from Barcelona for $222 million, doubling the previous world transfer record, and then a few weeks later added the French striker Kylian Mbappe for $180 million more. The two deals, at a stroke, shifted the global transfer market for good.

But Qatar was not completed. Its television network, beIN Sports, soon became the most avid collector of sports media rights in the world, part of an increase to Europe that was also decided upon at the Elysee meeting. BeIN’s powerful chief executive, Nasser al-Khelaifi, is also the president of P.S.G. He also has a seat on the board of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, and last year he became head of the European Club Association as well. He inherited that post in the aftermath of the abortive start of the European Super League, an alternative to the Champions League concocted by several of the most famous clubs in soccer.

Executives involved with the plan claimed their rationale was to save the sport; in reality, at least a part of the motivation was to try to clip the wings of P.S.G. and Manchester City, the deep-pocketed English team owned by a group intricately linked to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. The two clubs’ spending, their rivals told, has altered soccer beyond recognition, placing any club that tried to keep pace at risk of collapse.

For evidence of that, they need to point to the only team that tried. Barcelona, stung by the loss of Neymar, quickly found itself trapped in an inflationary spiral. By 2021, its financial distress was such that it could no longer afford to keep paying Lionel Messi, the finest player in its history. He bade goodbye to the only club he had known in a tear-stained news meeting. A few minutes later, he was photographed at an airport in Barcelona. His destination, of course, was P.S.G.

The Show Must Go On

A few weeks before the World Cup, Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor as FIFA president, wrote to each of the thirty-two nations that had qualified for the tournament. Now a resident of Qatar, Infantino urged all of them not to let football be dragged into every political or political battle that happens. It was time, he stated, to let the sport take the stage. It may be too late for that. As the tournament reached, the critique of FIFA’s decision to take it to Qatar only grew more pointed. An increasing list of current players, former players, coaches, sportswear manufacturers, and fans have been vocal in their opposition. The captains of England and Wales have agreed to wear a special armband promoting gay rights. Blatter, as new as this month, admitted the choice of Qatar was a mistake.

The Football World Cup That Changed Everything
The Football World Cup That Changed Everything

Qatar’s response, in turn, has been to become steadily more indignant. The country’s emir present, as crown prince, at the meeting at the Elysee with Platini lashed out last month at what he described as an extraordinary campaign of criticism from the West. Qatar’s foreign minister, two weeks ago, labelled the questions over its suitability to host the tournament very racist. FIFA has not always been so resistant to the idea of using soccer for political purposes. Even after all the inquiries, warrants, and detentions, FIFA as an institution has always defended its decision to go to Qatar by stating that the sport can be an agent for progress.

As the tournament FIFA World Cup that the host country was willing to pay nearly any price to obtain gets started, though, and as the eyes of the world turn to a tiny corner of the Gulf, it is hard not to feel it is the other way around: Soccer may or may not alteration Qatar, but Qatar has changed soccer forever.

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