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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Qatar in firing line as Fifa's political football

By James M Dorsey

Published in The National, Feb 23, 2011

Barely three months after winning the right to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Qatar's bid campaign is under increasing scrutiny. What was supposed to be the crowning of its efforts to position itself as a global soccer powerhouse is turning into a public relations nightmare.

The state is fending off assertions it employed its financial muscle to influence crucial votes on the executive committee of Fifa, football's world body. Despite that, there is little doubt its campaign fitted within Fifa's broad interpretation of its bidding rules and its accepted practices.

Qatar, nonetheless, is getting the short stick of the debate. Its deep pockets rather than the loopholes in Fifa's bidding rules are the focus of the debate that is coloured by the body's reputation having been tainted by a series of corruption scandals. Those deep pockets have so far not been employed to shift the focus of the debate on to Fifa, the core of the problem.

Qatar's failure to fend for itself beyond formal denials offers only one explanation for why it is in the eye of the storm. Equally important is the fact that Qatar is an obvious target as it seeks to capitalise on its success of becoming the first Middle East nation to host the world's biggest sporting event.

Less than two weeks after winning the bid contest, Qatar sealed a US$200 million (Dh734.58m) sponsorship agreement with FC Barcelona, one of the world's richest and most successful football clubs. Since then, Mohamed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation and a Qatari national with close ties to the Royal Family, has all but officially announced he will challenge Sepp Blatter, the imperious Fifa president, in that organisation's presidential elections scheduled for June. To top it all off, Qatar, despite official denials, is thought to be negotiating to acquire the English club Manchester United.

Ironically, Chuck Blazer, Fifa's outspoken US executive committee member, is one of the few to come out in Qatar's defence. In an interview to be published in next month's edition of World Soccer Magazine, Mr Blazer praises Qatar's bid campaign while acknowledging it raises questions about Fifa's bidding rules and attitudes.

At the core of the criticism of Qatar are allegations that it colluded with Spain and Portugal, which were jointly gunning for the 2018 World Cup, to trade votes for their respective bids and that it had promised to invest in the building of stadiums and soccer academies in the home countries of executive committee members. Qatar has denied the allegations.

To make things worse, Mr Blatter this month claimed the collusion did occur, despite Fifa earlier saying it had investigated the matter and had failed to find evidence to support the allegations. Mr Blatter's move achieved what he had hoped it would - tarnish Qatar and with it Mr bin Hammam who asserts Mr Blatter's 12-year tenure needs to be ended to ensure Fifa becomes a more transparent, more accountable organisation.

In his interview, Mr Blazer lays the blame where it belongs; he lashes out at Fifa's pooh-poohing of collusion and its acceptance of what he terms "legacy", the influencing of Fifa executive members with promises of assistance in building training facilities and stadiums in their home countries. For Qatar, however, that is a mixed blessing. While it exonerates the country from wrong doing, it leaves the question hanging about whether Qatar should have been awarded the World Cup.

Mr Blazer also takes Fifa to task for ignoring a Fifa inspection report that described Qatar's team facilities as "high risk" and concluding that granting it the World Cup would pose a "medium risk" in eight other categories. The report also warned that Qatar's scorching summer heat posed a potential health risk to players, officials and spectators.

Qatar's image problem is likely to be aggravated with Thomas Kistner, a prominent German sports journalist, promising to document at a conference in Miami in April Qatar's splurging of at least $200m on its campaign to win its World Cup bid. Qatar has never published its bid budget, but past estimates have put its marketing and event-related spending at $45m - compared with the $10m spent by the US on its campaign.

None of this belittles Qatar's success in winning the World Cup bid. If anything, it reinforces the call for reform of Fifa. However, it also highlights the challenges Qatar faces as it plays in football's big league. To succeed at that level, Qatar will have to radically revamp its public relations strategy and adopt a far more proactive and transparent approach. Failure to do so will prevent it from turning the tables on its detractors and condemn it to remaining the punch bag in other people's battles.

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