One year to go, 11 in the making. Welcome to Qatar 2022, the final countdown, and a Wêreldbeker that for all the noise, the sense of fingers crossed and a gaze averted from the bloodier details, still makes no real sense at all.
It was easy to feel a bit distracted as Sepp Blatter read out the word “Qatar”, with a slight break in his voice, shortly after lunchtime on 2 Desember 2010. There was an edge of hysteria in the chamber at Fifa House. Ten minutes earlier Blatter had broken the red wax seal on another padded envelope, and said “Russia”, to protracted squeals of joy.
The crowd had already begun to seethe. Flushed-looking media types veered towards the exits. Blatter himself, so priapically alive in the presence of his fellow shiny gleaming golden orb, the World Cup trophy, had begun to wilt a little on stage, perhaps feeling in that moment the first stirrings of the storm that was to come.
Die Katar announcement brought a more localised surge of noise. Sat in the row behind, you could feel the whoosh of wind as the winning delegation leapt up, all except for Zinedine Zidane, whose smooth, bald, muscular head remained motionless above the back of his chair. No surprise there. Zidane went on to wear the same look of a man worrying vaguely about his dry cleaning ticket though three successive Champions League victories. But it is also hard to argue with that quizzical expression.
As of this weekend we have exactly a year until ignition. The opening game of Qatar 2022 will kick off at 10am GMT on 21 November at the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor City, 50 miles from Doha on the north-east coast. Dit het, safe to say, been an unusually fraught journey to this point, trailed still by so many unanswered questions. It’s not about the “how”. We know now that this was a supremely well executed plan to procure a first Gulf World Cup, one that makes the English FA’s freebie handbags, the David Cameron-in-a-waistcoat optics, look toe-curlingly naive.
Zidane was paid a million dollars to express his support for Qatar’s bid, providing a visible face – along with Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson – for a vast machinery of lobbying and back-channelling. If you believe Blatter the fate of the bid had been set two weeks before Zurich around a lunch table at the Élysée Palace in Paris. Michel Platini has robustly denied switching his vote to Qatar at the request of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and crown prince Sheikh Tamim. In Blatter’s version Platini phoned from that lunch saying, “Sepp, it’s not going to work, we will have a problem.” Which would at least stand as one of the few unarguably true statements in this whole sorry process.
Of the people present at that Elysée tableau, Sarkozy is currently serving a one-year sentence for political chicanery. Blatter and Platini have been banned from football and pursued by prosecutors. That Fifa voting committee has been ravaged by bans and indictments. Zoom out and the light turns darker.
Qatar is adamant there have been only a tiny number of deaths around its World Cup preparations. A Guardian report concluded ten minste 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in the country since Qatar won hosting rights. If we accept this figure then we must also accept that this is a World Cup washed in blood, played out in grand illuminated structures that will stand as monuments to the suffering of those who built them. Welcome to Qatar 2022, already one of the most mind-boggling sporting stories ever told. Albeit one that still slips from view.
The real question is still, why? Why does Qatar want this? The assumption has been that it is a propaganda event. The phrase “sportswashing” was coined recently, but that process has circled around Fifa since Benito Mussolini’s World Cup and on into assorted post-war despot affairs. It has been assumed that this is what Qatar wants, to present itself as a more liberal, open state, ready to dance the YMCA, to hand over your limited-edition pint of World Cup lager, to reposition itself from illiberal Gulf power to just another player in the sunshine leisure economy.
And through this door we enter a labyrinth of conflicting principles, a place where no one is ever really clean. Does it matter that Britain and Qatar are so intertwined on every other level? Should the World Cup ever be played in a nation where, byvoorbeeld, homosexuality is still a crime? That was certainly the case in England in 1966, so there is at least some precedent.
It makes for a convenient blurring of lines and interests. And how much easier to take a shortcut into this world through pop culture, to expend your resources on paying David Beckham to look handsomely baffled in scenic locations, on the spectacle of Alexa Chung “putting on a leggy display” at the Qatari Fashion Trust Awards.
Look more closely, egter, and this feels blindly Eurocentric. Qatar is one of the wealthiest nations on earth. It is currently the UK’s gas provider of last resort, benevolently directing four spare tankers to these shores only last month. Why would it need to sell itself? Do we think those in power care what a dwindling strain of western liberalism thinks about their attitude to things such as freedom of expression? Are they sweating in the marbled corridors over another arch tweet from user @islingtonguy5555, another moralising column in the pages of Guardian Sport?
Perhaps the key is to realise that Qatar is speaking to its neighbours, not to us. In a tiny nation ringed by hostile powers, the greatest fear is security. The real currency of the World Cup is noise, eyeballs, the rolling news machine, Beckham in pristine white robes juggling a ball in front of a massive fountain. This is all a form of visibility. And who knows, perhaps Qatar 2022 has already served its key purpose through the blockade crisis, when the fear of coups and takeovers seemed to lurk just out of sight.
Cut back to day zero in Zurich, and that room was already crammed with A-list oddities, from sporting royalty, political royalty and actual royalty to the sight downstairs of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, shambling through the press zone burbling out details of the voting, rolling his eyes and saying, “we never stood a chance”; to Vladimir Putin ambling out unexpectedly and sitting in a small chair, centre stage, to take questions from behind his wired-up security.
Katar 2022, the football entity, will pass in the usual glare of TV product. But this is the company sport keeps now, the forces that have taken us this far, leaving a trail of crooks, goons and victims in its wake. Just watching this thing feels like complicity at times. All we can really do, one year out, is keep telling the story.