World Cup 2022 chief Hassan Al-Thawadi
By James M. Dorsey
Qatar is lamenting persistent perceptions that it won the hosting of the World Cup 2022 as a result of corruption, but seems unwilling to provide the transparency that could put an end to the suspicions.
The allegations were debated this week at two parallel conferences, Leaders in Football in London and Play the Game in Cologne.
Speaking in London for the first time about the allegations, Hassan al Thawadi, the Qatar committee's secretary general said that the ''perception (of corruption) will always be a sense of frustration until we overcome how people view us,'' according to World Football Insider.
Mr. Thawadi failed however to address what more Qatar could do to bolster its assertions that it pursued its bid by the rules. Qatar's bid defeated those of Japan, Australia, Korea and the United States.
Mr. Thawadi's remarks were unlikely to persuade participants in Play the Game, a conference focusing on good governance and the fight against corruption in sports, where Qatar's bid was not on the formal agenda but was questioned privately among senior sports officials and prominent sports journalists and analysts.
To be sure, Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to win the right to host the world's biggest sporting event, has faced a series of public relations challenges.
A bid committee employee positioned herself earlier this year as a whistleblower, alleging that Qatar had paid two members of the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA $1.5 million to secure their support for its bid. The employee admitted later that she had fabricated the allegation because of grievances about her job.
Suspicion of Qatar's handling of its bid was reinforced by the banning for life from involvement of soccer by FIFA of its Qatari vice president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, on charges of corruption. Mr. Bin Hammam has denied any wrongdoing and is appealing the FIFA decision.
Mr. Bin Hammam, whose presidency of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is suspended pending the outcome of his appeal, maintained close relations with the Qatari ruling family and the bid committee. The Qatari national was long the conduit for Qatari funding of FIFA president Sepp Blatter until the two men parted ways and Mr. Bin Hammam launched a failed challenge to Mr. Blatter's presidency.
Confronted with these public relations debacles, Qatar's best strategy would have been to be completely transparent about its bid, something the Gulf state has so far refused to do.
In doing so, Qatar could have shifted the onus to FIFA and the significant loopholes in the rules and regulations that govern its bidding process. Greater transparency would allow Qatar to separate what constitutes sour grapes on the part of those whose bids were not successful from what are legitimate concerns and put it in the position of advocating constructive reform of the bidding process.
Qatar has never revealed its budget for the bid nor has it publicly addressed in any serious fashion investment pledges it may have made in the home countries of FIFA executive committee members to influence their vote. Such investments are legal within the bidding rules but do raise ethical questions.
In London, Mr. Al Thawadi sought to distance Qatar from Mr. Bin Hammam. ''He and Qatar 2022 are completely independent and separate. The appeal is his decision and his steps. We have to ride it out as patiently as having to ride out the whistleblower allegations and others.''
The Qatari World Cup chief stressed the fact that Middle Eastern and North African soccer would benefit from the Gulf state’s hosting of the tournament. Already, the first moves towards professionalization and a more proper structuring and funding of the sport are becoming evident with the region’s nations determined to achieve a stellar performance in 2022. Middle Eastern and North African nations like host Qatar benefit from the fact that they have 11 years to prepare, the longest walk-up to a World Cup in FIFA history.
Mr. Al Thawadi insisted that the bid was conducted to the ''highest ethical and moral standards" and portrayed Qatar as the victim of a campaign in which ''baseless accusations were made against our bid. We were presumed guilty before innocent without a shred of evidence being provided.''
He said that “amid all the celebrations and joy, we knew that the work was only just beginning. What we did not know or expect was the avalanche of accusations and allegations that we would face in the immediate aftermath of what was a historic day for sport in our country and for the wider region.”
The ultimate litmus test for Qatar will be in 2015/2016 when it tests for the first time its unproven cooling technology in a full-sized stadium. The technology is intended to reduce blistering summer temperatures in the stadium during matches from above 40 degrees to 27 degrees Celsius.
"Technically, we’re creating an important legacy through our cooling technology, that won’t just apply to the stadiums and training grounds – but also to open air fan zones. We will share that technology with countries whose weather may be an obstacle. Through designing nine of our stadiums with modular components, we’ll be donating 170,000 seats to countries in need of sporting infrastructure,” Mr. Al Thawadi said
Mr. Al Thawadi asserted that Qatar’s approach "avoids the white elephant issue and is left with stadiums fit for purpose beyond 2022", while crucially contributing to global football development. "What we proposed was bold, new and exciting – and required a leap of faith which FIFA took. It is now up to us to show the world that we can deliver... and we will," he said.
With the proof that Qatar can deliver at least three years away, lamenting is unlikely to persuade the Gulf state's sceptics that Qatar's success was achieved without foul play. As a result, the suspicions will continue to tarnish the Gulf state’s image. Grabbing the bull by the horns with greater transparency could go a long way to turn the tables on its critics and counter the suspicion if not disprove the corruption allegations.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.