Anger and denial as Qataris defend country’s right to host World Cup
Said Brahimi should be in his footballing prime when the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in 2022. He plays on the right wing for the national under-19s side and will be 26 when the tournament starts – the same age as Adam Lallana, the England attacker who is about to get his first chance at World Cup glory in Brazil.
But , as he pulled on his boots to train with the national side on a full-sized air-conditioned pitch, the 18-year-old had to face up to calls for his country to be stripped of the event, amid the growing furore over claims of bribery during the bidding process by a top Qatari football official.
“[To prevent us] from getting the World Cup, which is the biggest event in the World, would be really upsetting,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair because everyone worked so hard. They planned everything and now it has just gone because of some people trying to get the whole country down.”
What he may not comprehend, partly because the allegations have only been cursorily covered in much of the press in Qatar, is the extent and seriousness of the claims that Mohamed bin Hammam, the former Fifa executive committee member who previously led Qatar‘s football authority, spent $5m in cash and gifts to international football officials in the bidding process.
But the disbelieving response of Brahimi, the Qatari-born son of an Algerian engineer for whom Qatar‘s successful bid is a huge opportunity, reflected anger and suspicion in Doha this week where reaction has swung between blithe dismissal and a siege mentality.
The Qatari press has reported the allegations but has focused strongly on the organisers’ denials of any wrongdoing rather than the details of the claims themselves. On Monday, the Qatar Tribune led with the robust rebuttal from the Qatar 2022 supreme committee, while it relegated the story to a three-inch column reporting on how the head of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain, believed the doubts about the bidding process raised by the allegations “will be cleared up soon”.
“People here feel frustrated,” said one Qatari sports official who asked not be named. “Why are people attacking us like this? It is our right to host the 2022 World Cup. It was voted for by the European delegations too. Are they corrupt?”
Another official said the claims in the Sunday Times were “ridiculous”, “entirely predictable” and “nothing new”. He added dismissively: “There’s no reaction, people here are cool. Work is in progress.”
But Tariq, a Bangladeshi driver plying his trade on the coastal Corniche road, summed up another strain of reaction to the bribery allegation: “I am 99% sure it’s true. What they are building here is a bubble and it is not real. We are modern slaves here and only if you chose to ignore human rights should the World Cup go ahead.”
Did he believe the bid was corrupt? “Yes,” he said. “On the outside they wear white, but on the inside they are black.”
Hosting the World Cup is a huge deal for the Qataris, who form a minority of the country’s 2.2 million population, which is made up mostly of 1.4 million migrant workers. It has become a pivotal part of the nation’s 30-year development plan, so the possibility that the tournament is in jeopardy has sparked serious concern.
In the supreme committee’s headquarters in a twisting 40-storey skyscraper overlooking the Arabian Gulf, inhouse lawyers have been poring over the allegations in order to “take whatever steps are necessary to defend the integrity of Qatar‘s bid”. A London law firm has also been retained. The atmosphere is tense. The committee repeated in a statement this week: “Mohamed bin Hammam played no official or unofficial role in Qatar‘s 2022 bid committee.”
There was a sense of anger inside the headquarters that what the bid’s leaders say was a World Cup won against the odds through hard work and meticulous networking was being tarnished. They also feel that it has been overlooked that Bin Hammam was also bidding to become president of Fifa at the time of some of his controversial activities.
The claims are just the latest wave of criticism undermining the embattled Qatar 2022 organising committee. 350 staff have continued to work on stadium designs and technical plans for the event as a wave of international scandals have swept over the proposed tournament , from labour rights abuses, previous claims about Bin Hammam’s behaviour, and the admission, by Fifa’s secretary general himself, Sepp Blatter, that it was “a mistake” to award Qatar the tournament on the basis of hosting it in the summer when temperatures top 46C.
The breadth of conspiracy theories in Qatar about the evidence contained in the email cache obtained by the Sunday Times suggests a degree of unwillingness to even consider the possibility the bid may be tainted. One sports official told the Guardian the story was to distract from the problems dogging preparations for the World Cup starting in Brazil next week. Some suspect an assault by the British media, apparently believing there is state control of the press in the UK as there is in Qatar. That theory is driven by the well-reported frustration in the UK at England’s failed bid to host the 2018 event, which was awarded at the same time as the 2022 tournament.
Perched on a velvet cushion sipping tea outside a shop in the Souk Waqif displaying a five-foot high replica World Cup decked out in Qatari colours, Mohammad Hamad said he would be dismayed if Qatar lost the right to host the tournament.
“I heard this on the news and it’s not right at all,” said the Syria-born shopkeeper. “People in Qatar are very proud of this and live for football, and the Qataris want the World to come here and to see that this is a great place.”
The extent of the damage will only emerge fully in July when a semi-independent report on the bidding process is due to be sent to Fifa. Before then, the Sunday Times is promising fresh revelations this weekend to coincide with the Fifa congress in Brazil.
Meanwhile preparations for the 2022 World Cup continue in the supreme committee’s brightly furnished offices. A bid clock reminds staff it is 96 months, 9 days, 22 hours, 57 minutes and 44 seconds away. The question remains: will Fifa pull the plug?