The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha is seen during the World Cup group stage match between Iran and England. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha is seen during the World Cup group stage match between Iran and England. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

With the World Cup now underway in Qatar, many are wondering how this moment arrived – that a tiny Gulf nation with little footballing history ended up hosting the biggest event the sport has to offer.

Qatar had never previously appeared at a World Cup tournament – let alone staged one – and became the first host nation to lose the opening game of the tournament with a 2-0 defeat against Ecuador on Sunday.

The country’s World Cup debut was 12 years in the making, a period in which Qatar’s host status has stirred controversy within the footballing community and beyond.

‘New lands’

When Qatar was named as host of the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, it was selected ahead of bids from the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia.

During the bidding process, it faced several obstacles as FIFA, football’s governing body, flagged concerns in technical reports. Those included a lack of existing infrastructure and the region’s intense heat in the summer, when World Cup tournaments are traditionally held.

Indeed, the reports even went as far as to label Qatar’s bid as “high risk,” but the country nevertheless triumphed with 14 votes to USA’s eight in the final round of balloting.

At the time, Qatar promised to make the world “proud of the Middle East” as the first country from the region to host the tournament, while then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter welcomed the prospect of football’s showpiece event going to “new lands.”

“I’m a happy president when we speak of the development of football,” he said.

Twelve years later, Blatter is more critical.

Earlier this month, he told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger: “Qatar is a mistake … the choice was bad.

“It is too small of a country. Football and the World Cup are too big for it.”

Blatter said FIFA amended the criteria it used to select host countries in 2012 in light of concerns over the working conditions at tournament-related construction sites in Qatar.

“Since then, social considerations and human rights are taken into account,” he said.

With a population of three million, smaller than that of Connecticut, Qatar has invested billions in its football infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 tournament.

But questions about just how Qatar won the right to stage the World Cup continue.

As recently as March 2020, the US Department of Justice alleged that bribes were accepted by top officials as part of the voting process to elect Russia and Qatar as the tournament host for the 2018 and 2022 events – claims Russian officials denied and Qatari officials called “false” in a statement to CNN.

The DOJ has been investigating allegations of corruption in international soccer, including FIFA, for years. To date, there have been more than two dozen convictions and some cases are ongoing.

A statement from FIFA in April 2020 said it “supports all investigations into alleged acts of criminal wrongdoing regarding either domestic or international football competitions and will continue to provide full cooperation to law enforcement officials investigating such matters.

“FIFA is closely following these investigations and all related developments in the legal processes ongoing in the United States and other parts of the world.

“It is important to point out that FIFA has itself been accorded victim status in the US criminal proceedings and senior FIFA officials are in regular contact with the US Department of Justice.”

FIFA was handed victim status by US prosecutors as they viewed football’s world governing body as having been almost hijacked by a number of corrupt individuals.

Human rights criticism

Qatar’s human rights record has also been in the spotlight ahead of the World Cup, particularly around the welfare of migrant workers.

Given the minimal infrastructure Qatar had in place at the time it was awarded the hosting rights to the World Cup, seven new stadiums have been erected ahead of the tournament, as well as new hotels and expansions to the country’s airport, rail networks and highways.

That has placed a reliance on Qatar’s migrant workers, who account for 90% of the total workforce, according to Amnesty International.

Since 2010, many migrant workers have respectively faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation, and an inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system, human rights organizations have found.

However, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) said the health, safety and dignity of “all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast,” with “significant improvements” made around workers’ rights.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino also told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies that he has seen “great evolution” in Qatar’s labor reforms, and the International Labor Organization has noted reformes like a non-discriminatory minimum wage that Qatar is the first in the region to adopt.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s state-backed discrimination against LGBTQ people has also been criticized in the years leading up to the World Cup.

Sex between men is illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison in the country, and a report from Human Rights Watch, published last month, documented cases as recently as September of Qatari security forces arbitrarily arresting LGBT people and subjecting them to “ill-treatment in detention.”

A statement sent to CNN on behalf of the SC said it was committed to “an inclusive and discriminatory-free” World Cup, pointing to the fact that the country had, it said, hosted hundreds of international and regional sporting events since being awarded the World Cup in 2010.

“There has never been an issue and every event has been delivered safely,” the statement read.

“Everyone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”

Perhaps the most obvious sign that this World Cup is different to most has been the decision to stage it in November and December, rather than June and July as is the norm.

Sweltering heat during the summer months in Qatar has necessitated the switch, although temperatures are still forecasted to rise above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) later this week.

Other changes to the organization of the tournament have been rather more last-minute.

On Friday, FIFA announced that no alcohol would be sold at the stadiums, and then on Monday, captains from seven countries were warned they would receive yellow cards if they wore armbands promoting inclusion and opposing discrimination.

FIFA announced earlier on Monday that it had brought forward its “No Discrimination” campaign – which also has a designated armband – adding that “all 32 captains will have the opportunity to wear this armband” during the World Cup.

FIFA’s equipment regulations state that “for FIFA final competitions, the captain of each team must wear the captain’s armband provided by FIFA.”

Time will tell what the legacy of this World Cup will be, but if the past few days, months, and years are anything to go by, it is likely to be complicated and controversial.

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