Two days out from the World Cup final, Qatar finishes hosting its tournament having very recently been declared “a frontrunner in labour rights”. “Today,” the declaration in question continued, “the World Cup in Qatar is proof of how sports diplomacy can achieve a historic transformation of a country.”
It feels only mildly unfortunate that the member of the European parliament who uttered these words three weeks ago is currently detained by Belgian police, after the discovery of almost €1m in banknotes in her marital home and a hotel room used by her father. After all, this has been a successful World Cup. Qatar has catapulted itself on to the world stage and won many plaudits. This timing is merely a freak coincidence.
In his closing speech, I hope Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino returns to a familiar rhetorical furrow, and riffs: “Today, I feel in police custody in Brussels. Today, I feel like an MEP with a suitcase of cash in her home. Today, I feel I am that MEP who denies any involvement in an alleged bribery and corruption scheme which also features the Moroccan intelligence services. Today, I feel I am the MEP’s husband who is reported to have confessed his role working for Qatar’s government.”
Before we go on, I should of course say there has never been any incontrovertible evidence uncovered that links Qatar to corruption in the manner it secured its World Cup. The arrests in Brussels last week are alleged to relate to Qatar’s attempts to bag an aviation deal and visa-free travel to the bloc. There is no smoking gun on Qatar’s successful bid, and Fifa’s no-doubt crack ethics committee found nothing in its investigations. The desert state would prefer you focus solely on its jubilation in that 2010 footage of Sepp Blatter opening the envelope revealing the word “Qatar”, while the cameras picked up representatives of England’s failed 2018 bid, including David Beckham, looking sad and shrugging. Beckham himself has since found a reported £150m from Qatar to cheer him up. So, you know – every cloud.
It seems odd now to think back to the Fifa arrests of 2015. At the time, it was the biggest story out there – so big that you could hardly believe what you were seeing. It ran and ran – until the massive political shocks of 2016 eclipsed it entirely, and it suddenly seemed like some quaint old cops-and-robbers tale from a different time.
But back then we were gripped. Time and again I go back to that image of staff at Zurich’s five-star Baur au Lac hotel, where Fifa executives were staying on the eve of its annual congress, dutifully holding up bed sheets to shield the suspects after they’d been arrested in the dawn raid by the Swiss authorities at the behest of the FBI. It’s not so much that the Fifa executives were literally being led out under their own dirty linen – though there’s definitely that. It’s the continuing level of respect.
I have stayed in the odd fancy hotel over the years. If, however, I was arrested in one of them, I simply can’t get my head around the process that would lead to me still being treated as a valued customer even as I was led out to the police van. I mean, what do you do to get that service? Ring down to the concierge and say: “Good morning. Couple of things. One, the hollandaise on my eggs benedict was a bit tepid this morning. Not happy. And two, I’ve just been arrested on behalf of the FBI. Can you send up someone in a tailcoat to hold some linen around me while I’m hauled off?” You would think, guest-services-speaking, that you were on your own at that point. And yet, bedsheets borne by footmen were forthcoming. It feels a testament to the fact there really was no better customer than Fifa. And there still isn’t.
As for last week’s arrests, they allege Qatar’s continuing attempts to curry global influence. Some of these are in plain sight. A number of British MPs have accepted travel gifts and hospitality from the Doha regime, with £260,000 showered on 36 MPs in the past year alone. Faced with renewed interest on these unfortunate declarations of interest after the Belgian raids, some beneficiaries are sticking to their guns. The Conservative backbencher Jackie Doyle-Price, who took £7,374 in travel and hospitality, insists: “It is precisely to challenge them on their human rights record that we go on these trips.”
I sort of love this idea – that an autocratic regime which has repeatedly demonstrated its total disregard for human rights would lay on lavish all‑expenses‑paid trips for no-mark foreign politicians and then, when some irrelevant member for West Bollockshire raises the issue of migrant worker deaths in between bites of the Arabian oryx steak it paid for, decide that it should change its ways. As Labour’s regretful Chris Bryant, who himself accepted hospitality, put it: “They didn’t want to listen and it felt all wrong.” Well, yes.
So if it feels ridiculously on the nose that this Brussels raid should take place in the closing stages of Qatar’s World Cup, that’s just the game. You expect sensational upsets, but winning eyes remain on the prize. After the Belgian arrests, a member of the Strasbourg parliament intoned: “We are standing in the middle of a crime scene”. Big deal. For the past month, we’ve been watching the biggest sports event in the world take place in the middle of one.
There has not been a single conviction despite, reportedly, thousands of labourer deaths. Nothing has changed, because the system works. There will always be people like Beckham willing to hold up the metaphorical bedsheets and the caravan will always move on. Whoever wins out of Argentina and France, the ultimate winner has been Qatar. It got away with it.