LONDON: When Qatar was drawn out of the envelope as a future host of the World Cup back in 2010, it was doubtful the majority of football fans would have been able to find it on a map.
A dozen years, US$300bil (RM1.3 trillion) and a raft of controversy later, one of the most expensive marketing campaigns in history will culminate with the tiny Gulf state hosting a final on Sunday between Argentina and France that’s expected to be watched by half the planet.
The inevitable question is whether the extravaganza was all worth it – even for a host with a seemingly bottomless pit of money.
The organisers – particularly FIFA – see the event as an outright success: a record TV audience, happy fans and a burnished brand.
But, however much soft power Qatar has gained from the tournament, the return to normality will be an epic comedown.
After a month when over 700,000 fans descended on Doha, Qatar will go back to being relatively empty. The fans have already started to return home, and so too will vast numbers of migrant workers.
Real estate agents are concerned apartments will remain unfinished, while hotels will have a glut of rooms and some stadiums will never be used again.
Then, there’s Qatar’s international standing, even as it supplies almost a quarter of the liquefied natural gas imports Europe is relying on to get through the winter.
Before the focus of the World Cup turned to drama and upsets on the pitch, the country faced criticism about the rights of migrant workers and an aversion to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning, or LGBTQ, pride symbols. That’s unlikely to go away.
This week, Qatar has also been the subject of non-World Cup headlines – a European Union corruption scandal involving bribery allegations.
And next month will put the spotlight back on how one of the biggest sporting events was handed to a tiny city-state in one of the world’s hottest regions as a court case gets underway.
An indictment filed in the United States accuses several officials of receiving payments to back Qatar’s bid. The country denies paying anyone for the hosting rights.
“There will be some long-term benefits for Qatar’s local population,” said Christina Philippou, a senior lecturer in sports finance at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
“However, if the whole purpose was to showcase Qatar to the world, in that sense I think there have been some less reputation-enhancing aspects. It’s been a very expensive ad campaign and I’m not sure it’s been an especially successful one.”
There’s no doubt Qatar made progress on workers rights after scrutiny from activists.
A month before the tournament kicked off on Nov 20, the ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, told local lawmakers some of the criticism was useful for the country’s development.
But he also hit back at what he called an “unprecedented campaign,” full of “fabrications and double standards” with dubious motives.
The World Cup preparations shone a light on the Gulf region’s “kafala” sponsorship system for foreign workers, and although some of the controversy around human rights in Qatar has faded since the event began, some groups advocating for migrant workers say the pressure must continue. — Bloomberg