A Successful FIFA World Cup 2022: How Qatar Proved its Critics Wrong and Can Continue to do so
Qatar has proved its critics wrong: the small state showed that it is capable of successfully organizing the world’s biggest sporting event, the FIFA men’s World Cup, after the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2017–2021 Gulf crisis, and heavy criticism of its human rights record in Western media.
I attended 13 live matches and was impressed by the excellent organization of both the public transportation and smooth entrance to the stadiums. The atmosphere was safe and peaceful.
FIFA reported a cumulative attendance of over 2.45 million (96% occupancy) for the first 48 matches, higher than the 2.17 million figures for the 2018 edition in a much larger country, Russia, making Qatar 2022 the second-highest cumulative total ever. Sold-out group stage matches in Lusail stadium saw the highest attendance in the history of the FIFA World Cup since the 1994 final in the United States.
While in a few Western European countries, such as Germany, there was less enthusiasm about the World Cup than in previous editions, record viewership from many other countries was reported. The England against USA match was the most watched men’s soccer game on US television ever, with a peak audience of 19.65 million viewers on Fox; the group stage match against Costa Rica generated the highest audience of the year in Japan, drawing 37 million views; while the Portugal versus Uruguay game drew the highest ever TV audience for a FIFA World Cup match in Portugal, with 5.35 million viewers. In terms of financial success, FIFA earned an unprecedented $7.5 bn in revenue through four years of commercial deals tied to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which is $1bn more than what the organization earned prior in the 2018 edition.
The 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup will be remembered for several milestones: hosted by Qatar, a country outside the traditional centers of the game in Europe and South America, the tournament included the most diverse round of 16 in the history of the event, with teams representing all continents. Even for the semi-finals, which in 2018 was a purely European event, the 2022 edition was much more diverse with countries from three continents qualifying: Argentina, Croatia, France, and Morocco. The World Cup 2022 also made headlines as the first FIFA men’s World Cup to be presided over by a woman referee, Stephanie Frappart at the group stage match between Costa Rica and Germany.
The years prior to the tournament were full of tension between Arab countries, including the blockade of Qatar, some Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel, and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, but sports could become a tool for peacebuilding and a better understanding in the Arab World as demonstrated by the solidarity shown towards Arab teams. Successes of Arab countries turned the tournament into a revival of Pan-Arabism, especially when it came to celebrating Morocco’s success, the first Arab and African country ever to qualify for the semi-finals, and using the matches as a platform to demonstrate solidarity with Palestine, the World Cup’s 33rd team, as the New York Times referred to it. Throughout the tournament, fans waved Palestinian flags, and the winning Moroccan team even posed for a picture with the Palestinian flag.
The Gulf states also demonstrated a renewed solidarity, with Qatar’s Emir wearing a Saudi scarf after the big neighboring state celebrated a historic win against football powerhouse Argentina, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE President, visiting Qatar for the first time since his country’s blockade against the host country. It remains to be seen how long the tournament’s invocation of Arab unity will last after the final whistle of the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Qatar’s organization of the World Cup was particularly praised in the Global South. Arab leaders, such as the Algerian President, defended Qatar against the criticism of some Western European countries; Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame congratulated Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad for the “enormous success” in hosting the FIFA World Cup; and Chinese President Xi Jinping similarly praised Qatar for organizing a “successful” FIFA World Cup tournament.
Despite intense negative press against the tournament in Europe, some Western leaders also applauded Qatar: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tweeted about “an incredible World Cup so far” before the England versus Senegal game, and both the French president and the US Secretary of State highlighted Qatar’s nationwide reforms prior to the FIFA World Cup 2022. Secretary Blinken tweeted: “We appreciate the work that Qatar has done to improve labor practices. Our hope and expectation is that some of the progress that’s been made continues and expands after the World Cup is over.” President Macron similarly tweeted: “This football World Cup, the first organized in an Arab country, is a sign of tangible changes underway.”
Some human rights organizations expressed concerns about whether the recent legal improvements for migrant workers in Qatar, such as introducing the first minimum wage policy in the region and the dismantling of the Kafala system, will last after the tournament. The State of Qatar can prove its critics wrong by, for example, gradually increasing the minimum wage, and continuing to inspect construction sites to check whether rest days and heat protection laws are respected. Qatar will continue hosting major sporting events, such as the Asian men’s football championship in 2023, the table tennis world champions in 2025, and the Asian Games in 2030, which will keep the spotlight on Qatar.
The FIFA men’s World Cup 2026 will be hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and the FIFA women’s World Cup in 2023 by Australia and New Zealand. The FIBA basketball men’s World Cup 2023 will be co-hosted by Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines. Adopting this trend and co-hosting sporting events with other Middle Eastern countries would add to Qatar’s image of being a good global citizen that has mediated major conflicts such as recently facilitating the Chad agreement, helping to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan, and providing an increasing number of countries with energy security. Qatar co-hosting events, for example with Saudi Arabia, would be an option for both continental and global sporting events, including a potential bid for the 2036 Summer Olympic Games, which might have a lasting peace dividend.
Article by Danyel Reiche, Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS)
Danyel Reiche is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) and a Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University Qatar where he leads a research initiative on the FIFA World Cup 2022. With Paul Brannagan, he published the book Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup: Politics, Controversy, Change (Palgrave Macmillan 2022), and edited the volume Handbook of Sport in the Middle East (Routledge 2022).
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.
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