Dare to Aspire
Qatar won the Asian Cup but the real story of their development lies off the pitch
The scene was familiar from a thousand cup finals. There was the hastily constructed stage, dragged in to the centre circle of the pitch by frantic workers seconds after the final whistle; the army of grinning, suited soccer apparatchiks, awkwardly milling around nearby and desperate to glean reflected glory from the success of others; there were, of course, the party cannons shooting millions of pieces of gold confetti into the air. And in the centre was a team, lifting a trophy. This cup final, however, did have something unique: the winners.
It was the Asian Cup final. Lifting the trophy was Hassan Al-Haydos, the captain of the Qatar national team, the first time the tiny country had ever won a major honour. And “won” doesn’t really do Qatar justice. They blitzed their way to the title, winning all seven games, scoring 19 goals in the process. They conceded just once, when they beat Asia’s traditional powerhouse Japan 3-1 in the final at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It felt like a seismic moment in Asian football: Japan had won a record four titles and had, over the years, blazed a trail for Asian players competing at the highest level in Europe. On the other hand, Qatar didn’t exist as an independent nation 50 years ago, they’d never got past the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup before and had never qualified for a World Cup finals. Eleven players in their squad were aged under 23 while a third began their playing careers at the Aspire Academy, a lavishly funded global talent spotting operation that was opened in Doha, Qatar’s capital, in 2004. The top scorer in the tournament was the 22-year-old Almoez Ali, a Sudan-born, Qatar-raised Aspire graduate who finished with nine goals, including a stunning overhead kick against Japan.
Qatar, of course, will be at the 2022 World Cup finals, as host. It is now a country whose name has become synonymous with the game for all the wrong reasons. Since winning the right to host the finals in a deeply flawed bidding process back in 2010, Qatar’s reputation has – rightly – taken a hit on everything from the use of indentured slave labour to build its stadiums and infrastructure to creditable allegations of corruption in the bidding process itself. There was also the thorny issue of the national team’s relatively poor performance and low Fifa ranking. In 2017 Qatar were hovering around 100th place, alongside El Salvador and Mauritania. So this unexpected success on the pitch in Abu Dhabi was supposed to be a good news story, both for Qatar and the rest of the Gulf. At the time they won the bid, the 2022 World Cup was sold as the Middle East’s World Cup, a chance for the whole region to write a different story for itself.
Yet Qatar’s victory was not welcomed by their Arab neighbours and especially not the hosts. Since June 2017 Qatar has been ostracised politically and economically by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. All trade and diplomatic links with Qatar have been cut, nominally on the charges that Qatar supported terrorism. The land border with Saudi Arabia was closed and all flights between the boycotting nations and Doha were suspended. There were no Qatari fans in the stadiums to watch their team’s run to the final, aside from a handful of boisterous supporters from neutral Oman and a mysterious woman from South Korea called Mary Lee who would turn up to games wearing a silk dress made of the Qatari flag.
The UAE, along with Bahrain, had outlawed any show of support for Qatar with possible sanctions of up to five years in prison. A handful of journalists for Qatari newspapers had been turned away at the border. Saoud al Mohannadi, a vice president of both the AFC and the Qatar Football Association, had also briefly been denied entry, before an outcry reversed the decision. Qatar had largely been boycotted by the home crowd too and played in front of a virtually empty stadium when they beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 in the group stage. When Qatar dismantled the UAE 4-0 in front of a hostile crowd in the semi-final, Qatar’s goal scorers were pelted with plastic bottles and a shower of sandals, the ultimate sign of disrespect in the Arab world.
Despite the hostility, Qatar powered to the final and were deserved winners. The Fifa president Gianni Infantino and the AFC’s Bahraini president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa fixed their grins as they handed out the medals before the players celebrated winning a tournament under extraordinary political pressure. But this was also a rare occasion when the undercurrents of the Gulf crisis had been dragged into the open. Football, and Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, has now become of diplomatic importance, on the frontline of a dispute that is more than just a regional spat. It has involved power politics at the highest level, the intervention of Donald Trump, state hacking, a rejected plan to expand the World Cup finals to 48 teams and a disinformation campaign targeting Europe’s press. It is also a dispute that has the potential to completely change the global game forever.
When the then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter opened an envelope and removed a card on which was written the word “QATAR”, even he seemed surprised. It was 2 December 2010 and Qatar had been awarded the rights to host the 2022 finals, despite Fifa’s own technical committee concluding that Qatar was “high risk” due to the extreme summer heat. Yet the victory, if you look a little closer, was not a surprise at all – and not just because of the persistent allegations of corruption that have surrounded the bid ever since. Over the past decade Qatar’s monarchy, through its web of investment vehicles and government departments, has invested its huge wealth in sport as a soft-power launchpad towards global recognition.
In 1971, a few months before the seven emirates of the Trucial Coast came together as the UAE, Qatar announced its independence (Qatar and Bahrain had also for a time considered joining the new entity). 24 years later Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani seized power from his disinterested father, Sheikh Khalifa, in a bloodless palace coup while he was on one of his many holidays in Switzerland. The new Emir began with a reformist zeal. The ministry of information was abolished, paving the way for the establishment of the Al Jazeera news network, and it was announced that democratic reforms would take place to create a British-style constitutional monarchy in which power resided with an elected parliament (which never really happened).
According to an Economist article in 1996, his programme had the royal families of surrounding Gulf states worried. In fact, there was a failed attempted counter coup in February 1996, led by a French mercenary called Paul Barril at the behest of a cousin of the former Emir. In 2018 Barril gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he claimed the project was, in part, under the patronage of Abu Dhabi (but more on that later). The exploitation of the world’s third-largest gas reserves off Qatar’s coast changed everything. It suddenly made Qatar, per capita, the richest country on earth. It was under the Emir – now protected by the US military’s central command, Centcom, stationed outside Doha, and housing some 11,000 US troops – and following the lead of the UAE that Qatar began to invest heavily in sport in general, and football in particular.
Since the turn of the millennium Dubai has led the charge in refashioning its international reputation and appeal through sport. The Dubai-owned Emirates airline has been, at one time or another, the main shirt sponsors of Chelsea, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Benfica and AC Milan. It was a major sponsor of Fifa and the World Cup, as well as the world’s oldest football competition, the English FA Cup.
There was even an aborted deal with one Dubai-owned investment vehicle to buy Liverpool, although the club ultimately decided to sell the club to the US businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillette Jr, a move that very nearly dragged Liverpool into bankruptcy. Still, Qatar shamelessly copied Dubai’s blueprint. The country successfully bid for the 2006 Asian Games and floated the idea of bidding for something bigger – a World Cup finals, perhaps, or even the Olympic Games – but the thorny issue of the desert heat seemed to make it impossible. A Gulf summer can see daytime temperatures hit 50 degrees Celsius. The poor state of the national team was also an issue. To remedy the latter, Qatar invested in the Aspire Academy. I stood in the main hall in the capital Doha at the grand opening in 2005. Aspire had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to see Diego Maradona and Pelé appear on stage together. Later, the 50,000-capacity Khalifa International Stadium would open and become its centrepiece.
Much of the investment appeared to fail, however. After announcing its plans to host the 2016 summer Olympic Games in Doha, which would have been moved to the slightly cooler month of October, the city did not even make the shortlist when it was announced in 2008. Qatar also failed to become a candidate city for the 2020 Games.
And then it all started to make sense. In 2009 Qatar launched its long-shot bid to host the 2022 World Cup finals. Aspire, which had appeared to be little more than a well-funded sports hall, had become front and centre of the campaign. The Qataris had opened numerous academies around the globe, looking to identify and recruit talent in previously overlooked or underdeveloped footballing nations. It had set up a program called “Football Dreams” designed to mine for talent in Africa, opening a facility in Senegal. Aspire, of course, denied that the operation was designed to get around Fifa’s strict naturalisation rules, rules which had largely been put in place because Qatar had bent them to breaking point, filling its national team with Brazilians and Uruguayans. To this day Qatar’s record goalscorer (as well as the holder of Qatar’s all-time appearance record) is Sebastian Soria, a Uruguayan striker who moved to Qatar when he was 21. Aspire had also built a presence in Guatemala, Thailand and Paraguay. All three had a member on the Fifa Exco, the 24-man governing body that decided who would host the 2022 finals. (Qatar has denied that Aspire is a way to lobby and get around naturalisation rules, pointing out that graduates of the Football Dreams program have represented different national teams. Two graduates, Moussa Wague and Francis Odinaka Uzoho, played for Senegal and Nigeria respectively at the 2018 World Cup.)
One of the most significant moments of the campaign took place 10 days before the vote, as the French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the crown prince of Qatar, and the Uefa president Michel Platini to the Élysée Palace, alongside a representative from Colony Capital, the American firm of investors that owned 98% of Paris Saint-Germain. What went on during that meal is still fiercely debated. An investigation by France Football called “Qatar-gate” alleged that Sheikh Tamim offered to buy PSG and clear their debt if Platini voted for Qatar 2022. On top of that a new TV channel called beIN Sports – spun off from Al Jazeera Sports and rebranded – would be created and buy French TV football rights. Platini responded to the allegations forcefully. “To say that my choice … was part of a deal between the French state and Qatar is pure speculation … and lies,” he said. “I do not rule out legal action against anyone who casts doubt on the honesty of my vote.” Later, the French media reported that Platini admitted that Sarkozy didn’t tell him he had to vote for Qatar but that it would be “a good thing if [he] did.” A Qatari state funded entity, QSI, did indeed buy PSG, clearing its debts and transforming its fortunes. Platini subsequently admitted that he voted for Qatar before being banned from football for unrelated financial discrepancies.
Qatar’s joy at winning the bid soon dissipated as the global media microscope threw up a constant stream of damaging stories, usually surrounding the poor treatment of migrant workers. But another seismic event was taking place in December 2010 that would eventually see the country significantly diverge from its neighbours and sow the seeds for the current crisis: Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian man who sold fruit and vegetables in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire after being humiliated by a local official. His death sparked a series of uprisings across the Middle East that began in Tunisia and spread across the region. In Egypt the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak was removed from power after hundreds of thousands of people filled Tahrir Square. After Egypt’s first free elections, Mohamed Morsi became president, a candidate aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is a popular Islamist organisation that is banned in much of the Middle East as it poses the biggest threat to the Gulf’s conservative, autocratic monarchies. The election of Morsi terrified the Gulf Arab states who feared that they would be next.
At the same time two crown princes had risen to power who both viewed the Brotherhood (and Iran, a historic rival to Saudi Arabia) as existential threats: Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan in the UAE and Mohammad bin Salman al Saud in Saudi Arabia. MbZ, as the former is known, was already de facto in charge of the UAE and its formidable security apparatus. When he met the British prime minister David Cameron in 2012, he was briefed on the meeting beforehand by Simon Pearce, a PR man and advisor to MbZ who has been charged with reshaping Abu Dhabi’s international reputation. Pearce is also a director at Manchester City. According to leaked documents seen by the Guardian, Pearce briefed MbZ with a series of outlandish claims, including one that the BBC was riddled with Brotherhood sympathisers, in a bid to force the UK government to take a tougher stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. If they didn’t, British businesses would find difficulty in securing contracts from the UAE, especially when it came to arms and security.
This prompted Cameron to launch an inquiry in to the Brotherhood’s activities, headed by the UK’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins. His first stop was Abu Dhabi, to meet with the Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak. Al Mubarak is MbZ’s right-hand man and at the heart of the UAE government where he sits on Abu Dhabi’s powerful Executive Council, as well as running a series of state-funded investment vehicles. “The UK will need to consider the political implications when three of its most important allies in the region [Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE] have taken a clear decision regarding the MBS [Muslim Brotherhood],” the Guardian reported Mubarak as saying. “Difficult conversations we’ve been having will become far more difficult. We are raising a red flag.”
The most powerful people in Abu Dhabi, and the UAE, are intimately connected to Manchester City and, of course, to the other clubs within its vast City Football Group, including New York City FC and Girona. The group’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, is MbZ’s brother and part of the Bani Fatima, the six sons of the UAE’s late, and well-respected, founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan and his favourite wife Fatima. The true power within the UAE is found inside the Bani Fatima. When the Chinese president Xi Jinping came on a UK state visit in October 2015, he visited Manchester City’s state of the art training facility and was shown around by Khaldoon al Mubarak, with David Cameron in tow behind them. A few months later a Chinese state backed consortium, CMC, purchased a 13 per cent stake in City Football Group for £265 million. Earlier this year City Football Group added Sichuan Jiuniu FC in China to its growing roster of clubs.
Mohamed bin Salman, meanwhile, made a much bigger splash in a shorter period of time. MbS quickly accumulated power once his father became king in 2015. He was appointed deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, along with a series of other important appointments. Despite several decades separating them, MbS and MbZ shared a similar vision for the region and an impatience with implementing it. As Simon Henderson, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy pointed out in a profile of the pair in Politico: “they appear to have a mentee/mentor relationship, with the older MbZ viewing MbS as the future king of Saudi Arabia, who needs to be tutored by an older brother type figure.”
There had been some early hope surrounding MbS’s reformist agenda. On the one hand he pushed for the liberalisation of some parts of Saudi society, namely reducing the power of the hated religious police and implementing other social reforms: women were allowed to drive and attend football matches. Cinemas would reopen. And a huge investment fund, Vision 2030, would diversify the economy away from oil. On the other hand, there was the 2017 purge against members of Saudi Arabia’s elite in which dozens of businessmen were effectively locked up in the gilded cage of the Ritz Carlton Riyadh until they agreed to hand over billions of dollars in assets in a purported crackdown on corruption. And there is the continued crackdown on dissent and free speech that has seen hundreds of activists, including dozens of women, make accusations of arbitrary arrest and torture. The two have also embroiled themselves in the disastrous conflict in Yemen – which has killed close to 20,000 civilians – as well as intervening in various conflicts in the Middle East, especially Syria and Libya, where they saw Islamist groups gaining a foothold.
Qatar, meanwhile, supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Billions of dollars were loaned to Egypt to help prop up the Morsi government. There was also support for other Islamist groups in the Middle East. Qatar would host leading figures of Hamas and the Taliban. There were allegations of funding groups that were fighting Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria’s civil war, a complicated patchwork of armed groups that were being funded by various outside actors including the US and the Saudis, sometimes on the same side, sometimes against each other. When Morsi was eventually removed from power in a military coup in 2013, the UAE and Saudi Arabia promised upwards of US$12billion of aid to the new president Abdel Fattah el Sisi, a military man who has led a crackdown against dissent in Egypt, whether from Islamists, liberals or activists. Egypt would also join the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in boycotting Qatar. But what really antagonised Qatar’s neighbours over the years was Al Jazeera, the freewheeling state-funded TV network based in Qatar that aired views from dissidents that openly criticised the policies of Saudi and Emirati leaders (while, of course, refraining to criticise Qatar’s own royal family who bankrolled it). They accused Qatar of using Al Jazeera to agitate opposition in their own backyards. (It was no surprise that when the boycott was announced, one of the demands was for Al Jazeera to be shut down.)
There had been various fallings out before, including a diplomatic break in 2014. But the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president presented an opportunity. The Saudis and the UAE – who had been supportive of a Trump presidency after becoming enraged with Barak Obama’s softening of relations with Iran and the signing of a deal designed to stop it developing nuclear weapons – convinced him that Qatar was the bad guy. Qatar had recently been embroiled in a scandal over a group of kidnapped Qatari royal family members who had been snatched while hunting in southern Iraq, looking for the houbara bustard, a prized catch in the Gulf. Qatar’s government reportedly ended up paying anywhere up to a billion dollars as a ransom to free the captives, money that found its way into the hands of Islamist militias with ties to the Revolutionary Guard in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to Robert F Worth, writing in the New York Times Magazine, the ransom “began to figure, often in highly distorted form, in a Saudi-financed PR blitz that portrayed Qatar as a fountainhead of terrorism. The anti-Qatar campaign was a patchwork of true and false or questionable claims that only muddied the waters around the ransom and Qatar’s broader culpability in bankrolling Islamist groups.”
The final straw was a report from Qatar’s official news agency, the QNA, which quoted the country’s new Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani (Tamim replaced his father who voluntarily abdicated in 2013) praising the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and Hamas while criticising the newly elected US president Donald Trump. The Qataris claimed that the site was hacked by Saudi operatives and the story was fake. But it was too late. Sure enough Trump – who had just been lavishly welcomed to Riyadh by MbS – took a side. Shortly after the blockade of Qatar was announced, Trump tweeted: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
Two weeks later MbS was officially named Saudi Crown Prince and an information and economic war has been raging ever since. There have been some pettier moves too, like the Saudi announcement that it would build a huge trench to separate Qatar from the mainland and fill it with nuclear waste. There was the case of beoutQ, a TV network that emerged over night and has brazenly been bootlegging Premier League and World Cup football matches in Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern rights were held by Qatar-owned beIN. But the World Cup was the biggest prize, in which Qatar had invested huge resources and political capital. When the emails of the UAE’s ambassador to the US – Yousef al Otaiba, a well-connected scion of Washington’s political elite – were leaked they laid bare a trail of plans aimed at diminishing Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup, including one that would force Qatar to share the World Cup with its neighbours. Allies of the UAE claimed that these emails were also hacked by Qatari operatives. In fact a dirty information war has long been underway, with accusations of hacking and counter-hacking, of astro-turfed human rights organisations popping up and disappearing overnight and millions of dollars of funding being poured into DC’s amoral think tank laundromat to skew research and PR one way or the other. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that a little-known London-based consultancy firm called Cornerstone Global Associates – whose founder has close links to the UAE’s ruling elite – had been involved in a campaign to place negative stories in the British media designed to damage Qatar’s chances of hosting the World Cup (I was part of that reporting team). Cornerstone said that its research was impartial.
So far there has been no killer blow. The boycott had initially created a headache for Qatar. Building materials for the World Cup had to be rerouted and new suppliers found. Supermarket shelves were initially emptied. But the economy levelled out. New trade routes were opened up with Oman. Turkey stepped in to supply food and other perishable goods. Years of high gas prices meant that the country had a huge surplus which it had to use a large chunk of to stay afloat. Even Donald Trump changed his mind, inviting the young Emir to the White House. Qatar had just signed a $300 million weapons system contract. Qatar believed that it had weathered the storm. And then came Gianni Infantino and his idea to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams, four years ahead of time.
Up in the stands of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, during the World Cup last June, Gianni Infantino watched an unexpectedly energetic Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0. To his right sat the Russian president Vladimir Putin, to his left Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman. Rubbing shoulders with world leaders came with the role. Sepp Blatter thrived in such an environment. But Infantino had been elected as a clean pair of hands after the scandals of the Blatter era and had, early on, followed through on one of his election pledges: expanding the 2026 World Cup (to be held in the US, Mexico and Canada) to 48 teams. He would later make a startling pitch to the Fifa Council, the organisation’s new ruling body: a revamped Club World Cup, expanded to include the biggest European clubs. It was a direct challenger to Uefa’s Champions League.
It later emerged that the deal included a global version of Uefa’s Nations League and rights to Fifa’s vast and highly lucrative portfolio of intellectual property: videos, photos, computer games, the works. The figure was huge. US$25 billion was far more than Fifa could have hoped to ask for. The current Club World Cup, according to the New York Times, is worth US$100m at best. Infantino would not reveal to Fifa who was behind the deal due to a non-disclosure agreement. He wanted to push through agreement at the Fifa Council anyway, claiming that there was a deadline before the deal would be withdrawn. Uefa’s president Aleksander Čeferin, fearing for the supremacy of the Champions League, fiercely opposed the move, as did many of Europe’s top club sides, at least in public.
The Council said they needed more time. Over the following months more details have dripped out, including the role of SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate with strong ties to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The three have combined to create the world’s largest tech investment fund, worth US$100bn, called the Vision Fund: US$45bn has come from Saudi Arabia, and US$15m from the UAE’s sovereign wealth vehicle Mubadala. MbZ is the chairman of Mubadala, Sheikh Mansour is deputy chairman, and Khaldoon al Mubarak the CEO and managing director.
The details of the deal remain opaque, complicated further by the grisly killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who wrote critical columns for the Washington Post. The CIA concluded that MbS ordered the murder (the Saudi government has predictably denied that MbS had anything to do with it).
Infantino was forced to stress that direct state funds would not be used to pay for the deal. In fact, many of the details have come from revelations that highlight Infantino’s pliant attitude to the powerful in the Middle East. Through documents provided by the whistleblowing site Football Leaks, the German news magazine Der Spiegel revealed that Infantino held a meeting in Abu Dhabi in December 2017, around the time of the Fifa Club World Cup, with an investment company called Centricus to discuss the monster US$25bn deal. Centricus, according to the Financial Times, was the investment company that put together SoftBank’s Vision Fund. SoftBank would also be involved in the prospective Fifa project.
There were other revelations about Infantino’s dealings in the Middle East. When Infantino was president of Uefa, Manchester City and PSG (effectively owned by Qatar) were found guilty of breaching Financial Fair Play rules. FFP had been introduced to try to curb out of control spending and stop clubs going into debt. Uefa found that both City and PSG had massively inflated their sponsorship contracts with other state-controlled companies, like Etihad airlines in the UAE and the Qatar Tourism Authority. The question was: what should be the punishment? Rather than accept censure, the leaks revealed that City threatened Uefa with legal action that could bankrupt it. The club’s lawyer Simon Cliff allegedly wrote in an email that City’s chairman “Khaldoon [al Mubarak] said he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.” Uefa would have to decide whether to proceed as planned or “avoid the destruction of their rules and organisation.”
Emails written by Infantino show him soft pedalling with both parties. In one alleged email to Khaldoon al Mubarak Infantino explains how he will try to make any punishment sound harsher than it actually was. “You will see that I’ve sometimes chosen a wording which ‘looks’ more ‘strong’ … Let’s be positive!” For over-inflating sponsorship contracts by as much as half a billion dollars both City and PSG got a slap on the wrists. But City didn’t stop there. According to Football Leaks, the club’s ownership decided to get around the rules by orchestrating a campaign to funnel money from Sheikh Mansour to the club whilst disguising it as sponsorship money coming from other UAE-owned companies. When the club’s chief financial officer questioned whether he should be manipulating sponsorship contracts, and in some cases backdating payments, he got a reply from the club’s director Simon Pearce: “Of course, we can do what we want.”
Uefa says it is investigating the new claims. Manchester City, meanwhile, said it would not comment on “out of context materials purported to have been stolen from City Football Group” and others associated with the club. “The attempt to damage the club’s reputation is clear.”
In Argentina last November Gianni Infantino addressed the leaders of the G20, the 20 largest economies in the world. MbS was among them. After saying for years that sports and politics should be separate, Infantino gave a speech that claimed football could in fact be used to heal social and political divisions. One example? The rift between the Gulf states. “Maybe, if football makes dreams come true, in 2022 we could also experience a World Cup in Qatar as well as, why not, some games in other countries of the Arabian Gulf. But this is another story, hopefully with a happy end. Inshallah!” he said. Later he told the Guardian that expanding and sharing the World Cup could help bring peace in the Gulf. When asked about Saudi Arabia hosting matches he said, “if any discussion around the World Cup can help in any way whatsoever to make the situation evolve in that region, with regard to Saudi Arabia, it’s a nice impact maybe.”
In March, the Fifa Council approved the new 24-team club tournament, with the first edition planned for 2021, although the European Clubs Association (ECA) later agreed to boycott the event. Meanwhile, the same meeting saw the Fifa Council agree that Qatar 2022 should be expanded to 48 teams. Several UAE officials have expressed their readiness to step in if called upon, subject to a final decision made in June. But any expansion would require Qatar’s agreement. Unless a hard political calculation is made at the highest level, that is unlikely to happen. A source close to Qatar’s organising committee said there was zero appetite to share the 2022 World Cup and that as long as the decision rumbled on, time would eventually scupper Infantino’s plans and, they cheekily added, Infantino’s hopes for a Nobel peace prize. After all, World Cup qualification will have to begin soon. But that doesn’t mean the spy games and political machinations have ended. Unless the political landscape alters, Qatar’s 2022 World Cup finals will see enough political positioning and power politics to make the Asian Cup in the UAE – with its booed national anthems and thrown sandals – look almost quaint in comparison. There was even a last-minute attempt by the UAE to have Qatar thrown out of the final in Abu Dhabi, on the grounds that Almoez Ali and the Iraq-born Bassam Al-Rawi were both ineligible to play for Qatar. The complaint was rejected.
In the end Qatar were rarely troubled by Japan as they ran out 3-1 winners. It could have been more. After the cup was presented, the players picked up their La Masia-trained Spanish coach Félix Sánchez and bounced him in the air in celebration. “Today we made history for our country, so we need to be very proud about our achievement,” Sánchez said after the match. “This is one step more towards being ready for 2022 and represent Qatar as a very competitive team at the World Cup.” The team may well be ready to play the World Cup finals in Qatar in 2022. But at what price?