James M. Dorsey
Last updated: 27 September, 2011

Football Produces for Qatar PR Challenge Rather than PR Boon

Two major sports events were intended to anchor Qatar’s image as a global sports hub and demonstrate its mastery in hosting major sporting events. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Ten months after winning its bid to host the 2022 World Cup and months after serving as the venue for the Asian Cup, Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign remains controversial and could as yet be subjected to investigation and the Asian Cup barely passed muster. In addition, Qatar is likely to only be fully in the clear in 2015/6 when it has established that its revolutionary stadium cooling technology indeed works in large venues.

Qatar’s image problems were further compounded this year by a US diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks that revealed for the first time that Qatari nationals were also involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

To top things off, Qatar dashed hopes that it would break with the Middle Eastern norm of linking the government’s prestige to the performance of the country’s national football team when it fired its charismatic national coach, Frenchman Bruno Metsu. By firing Mr. Metsu, it affirmed a policy prevalent in the region that emphasizes political rather than sports performance and encourages a short-term approach that demands immediate results rather than the long-term vision needed to build a sustainable, winning team.

The Qatar Football Federation fired Metsu because of the failure of its national team to progress to the semi-finals in the Asian Cup. Qatar like all other Middle Eastern teams, who accounted for half the countries competing in the Asian Cup, didn’t get past the quarterfinals, but produced its best performance ever in an international tournament.

In short, what should have been a PR boon building on its successful World Cup turned first into a PR fiasco and now is a simmering PR problem.

That problem has not become any easier with the downfall of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national who played a key role in Qatar’s World Cup bid. Mr. Bin Hammam was this year banned for life by world football body FIFA from involvement in football on charges of bribery related to his failed FIFA presidential campaign. He has been fired as FIFA vice president and suspended as head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) pending his appeal against the FIFA verdict. Mr. Bin Hamman has denied any wrongdoing.

Charges of Qatari wrongdoing in its World Cup bid campaign suffered a significant setback when an employee of the bid committee publicly admitted having fabricated alleged evidence of bribery in the Gulf state’s bid campaign.

Nonetheless, suspicion remains that Qatar engaged in what FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer described as “legacy” promises for assistance in building facilities in the home countries of various FIFA executive committee members. Such assistance does not violate FIFA rules but highlights loops in the regulations governing bids.

Qatar’s Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, which is controlled by the ruling family, last year added Thailand and Costa Rica, two nations with members on the FIFA executive committee, to its annual Aspire Football Dreams tournament, the largest talent hunt in football history. A 2009 Qatari bid document, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, lays out plans for grassroots football training in Nigeria and to “build a football academy in Thailand emulating the Aspire Football Dreams Academy in Senegal.”

Thai committee member Worawi Makudi is believed to have voted in favour of Qatar. Mr. Makudi, a close associate of Mr. Bin Hammam, is under investigation by FIFA for allegedly using assistance from the world body for investments on private property. Mr. Makudi has denied the charge.

Other countries represented on FIFA’s executive committee – Paraguay, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria — already were included among the 16 countries participating in Qatar’s hunt for the next generation of world class football players. More than half a million kids born in the mid-1990s from hundreds of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America competed to be one of 25 players accepted at Aspire’s training academies in Qatar and Senegal.

The Asian Cup hosted early this year by Qatar was supposed to silence critics of the Gulf state’s successful World Cup bid. The critics assert that the tiny desert state lacks a football culture as well as a sufficiently large fan base to justify hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. They point to past problems with Qatar’s hosting of events.

Qatar’s first foray into the hosting business with the 2006 Asian Games was marred by the fatal accident in competition of South Korean equestrian Kim Hyung-chil. Logistics were a major issue in 2008 and 2009 when the national Qatari football team hosted their English and Brazilian counterparts.

“Plastic glow-sticks were given to every fan to join in a light display at the start of the match. However, within seconds of the start of the display these glow-sticks turned into mini-missiles being hurled towards the pitch, often clattering into those in the front few rows. At the end of the match chronic transportation problems left thousands of fans stranded around the stadium for hours on end at the mercy of profiteering taxi drivers,” recalled David Roberts, a Gulf expert.

As a result, the Asian tournament was as much about the competition as it was about Qatar. Yet rather than allaying concerns about its ability to host the World Cup, Qatar’s handling of the Asian Cup gave them a new lease on life.

Underlying the various issues that pose a PR challenge for Qatar is a fundamental difference in Western and Gulf perceptions of football. Those differences were highlighted during a recent visit to Doha by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Referring to Qatar’s ban on homosexuality, Cameron told a joint news conference with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani that “it is clear – football is for everybody. No one should be excluded on the basis of their race or religion or sex or sexuality. It is absolutely vital that is the case. I am sure that will be the case when the football World Cup comes here to Qatar.”

Mr. Cameron laid out a philosophy of football that embraces all segments of the population irrespective of race, creed, religion, gender or sexual disposition even if Europe in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and economic malaise has made the continent more hostile to immigrants.

By contrast, Emir Al Thani put football in the context of economic and technological progress that preserves conservative and religious values in a country in which Qataris constitute only one third of the population. With other words he subscribed to Mr. Cameron’s creed of employing football to break down barriers only to the degree that it does not endanger the Qatari minority’s national and cultural identity and privileged position.

To Mr. Cameron, sports and football in particular is a key pillar of civic society and an economic generator. To Emir Al Thani, football is a tool that allows the tiny Gulf state to project itself onto the world stage, establish itself as a global sports hub and create economic opportunity.

“I like sport, of course, but I am not involved in sport. I suspect FIFA chose Qatar for 2022 to take it to different grounds, different culture, different geography. This shows that football is international,” Emir Al Thani said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.