The decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar generated a wave of criticism outside the Middle East on the selection of this tiny country to host football's greatest tournament. Since it was Australia, the US, Japan and South Korea that lost the bid, it came as a surprise that most of the condemnation came from the English press.
While the members of the Qatar bid committee in Zurich were immediately peppered with questions on terrorism, the treatment of women and the blistering heat in the smallest country to stage the World Cup finals, the Qatari committee chairman Shaikh Mohammad Bin Hamad Al Thani, spoke of "misconceptions" in relation to the climate and assured those present to "get beyond these perceptions".
But the British press, miffed at missing out on the 2018 bid, was not readily assured, or very understanding. A report by Amnesty International last May was splashed on the front pages of some dailies as a reference to their concerns in relation to Qatar.
The report, which covers the period January to December 2009, claimed that Qatari women face discrimination and violence and that hundreds of people continue to be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, wandering about as ‘bedoon' (stateless).
The report also details how at least 18 people, mostly foreign nationals, were sentenced to flogging — between 40 and 100 lashes — for offences related to ‘illicit sexual relations' or alcohol consumption.
In June this year, Amnesty International called on Qatar to "lift restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to take steps to promote freedom of the press".
Ed Connell, a spokesman for the Gay Football Supporters Network was emphatic in his organisation's disappointment with the Qatari selection. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. "It's obviously very disappointing to see Fifa giving their backing to a country where homosexuality is illegal and where people can get imprisoned," he said.
"The governing body of football is trying to send out a message that homophobia is unacceptable but they are endorsing a country where it is illegal. It just sends out a very bad message. You wonder how people are meant to interpret Fifa's commitment to tackling homophobia when they endorse a country in this way."
Other English fans had this to say: "A free, inquisitive media is not a noted feature of Qatari society. The two winning countries both have a culture of corruption and no free press. Perfect for Fifa."
"I can understand why Russia won 2018 — large, powerful country where football is very popular, first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe etc etc... but QATAR??? How on earth are they going to accommodate hundreds of thousands of foreign fans? Why is a World Cup going to a country where apart from 50+ degree temperatures in June/July, ‘public displays of affection', ‘immodest dress' and alcohol are all banned and where homosexuality is a criminal offence? Are all gay people banned from the 2022 World Cup? What a disgrace."
"Choosing Qatar over the other bidders for 2022 merely highlights where Fifa's priorities really lie; an interest in money over the interests of the game. A World Cup in the US would have solidified the rapid growth of the game since the 1994 World Cup and creation of the Major League Soccer, just as a tournament in the Antipodes would have sparked a huge growth and surge in interest in that part of the world, as the Aussies would want to do well in their own backyard."
"It will also be interesting to see how the Russians and then four years later the Qataris will cope with the non-influx of fans to their World Cups. Can anyone really imagine travelling around such a large country as Russia following their team? And as for Qatar, that has to be the biggest joke of all."
"The real scandal in Fifa-ville was the decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar, a soulless, featureless, air-conditioned, cramped place with so little connection to football it required hired hands like Pep Guardiola. It was as if Fifa was saying ‘to hell with the fans'. Qatar 2022 will be a joyless experience for supporters, and a dry state at that."
"What has Qatar ever contributed to world football? Perhaps we should have the next cricket World Cup in Lithuania or Iceland."
"For Fifa to ignore a bid like that in favour of a tiny nation with a laundry list of problems [deemed by Fifa themselves ‘high risk'] really raises some eyebrows."
Undoubtedly in the next few days and months more scorn and criticism is expected to come Qatar's way. The Qataris had better adopt a hard shell and go about their business in the preparations rather than to respond to this avalanche of negativity.
Which makes me wonder: Has the world's biggest and most popular sport really been reduced to alcohol, womanising and homosexuality?
- Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.