Soccer moves centre stage in Qatar, dimming World Cup controversies

  • Critics said Qatar was not fit to host the world soccer tournament
  • Drama on the pitch is overshadowing politics in the final days
  • Belgian investigation refocuses on Qatar
  • The Minister of Foreign Affairs says that in 2022 will be the ‘most inclusive’ football World Cup

DOHA, December 13 (Reuters) – As the World Cup in Qatar reached its climax, the drama on the pitch was partly overshadowed by human rights disputes that have dogged the Gulf Arab state since it was first chosen to host the competition 12 years ago.

Since the tournament was awarded, critics have questioned how soccer authorities could choose a country that had never reached a finals before, was too hot to host summer matches and would have to build most of its World Cup stadiums from scratch.

The decision also drew attention to Qatar’s human rights record, including conditions for foreigners who built stadiums and conservative laws banning homosexuality, restricting political expression and the sale of alcohol.

Qatari authorities say a decade of criticism of their country has been unfair and misinformed, pointing to labor law reforms implemented since 2018 and accusing some critics of racism and double standards.

Organizers have also denied allegations of bribery to win the right to host the biggest football event ever to be held in the Middle East.

Those disputes have overshadowed growing competition and hampered Qatar’s efforts to position itself as a global power that offers the world more than a vital supply of natural gas.

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An investigation in Belgium into separate allegations that Qatar showered officials with cash and gifts to influence decision-making in the European Union helped reignite criticism this week. Qatar denies any wrongdoing.

But three weeks of heroics and heartbreak on the pitch helped quell the controversy as the quarter-finals saw a dramatic penalty shoot-out and the rivals triumphed over football’s giants, paving the way for two eagerly awaited semi-finals.

Fears that the tournament will expand to an untried country hosting the world championship with the smallest population and geography are also unfounded. Sixty matches successfully played, only four to go.

“Many of us underestimated Qatar’s ability to host this tournament, but in the end they succeeded. The logistics worked smoothly and the infrastructure worked well,” said a Western diplomat in Qatar.


The first week of the competition set the tone when Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina in one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, much to the delight of thousands of visiting Saudi fans, whose country until last year led the regional boycott of Qatar.

The leaders of the two neighboring countries donned each other’s national flags and scarves at the tournament, symbolizing the end of the bitter dispute.

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Morocco’s surprise progress – the first African and Arab hope to reach the semi-finals – also electrified the competition, challenging the dominance of Europe and South America and providing justification for the first World Cup in the Arab world.

Early global attention focused on controversy over plans by football’s governing body FIFA to punish teams wearing One Love armbands supporting LGBT+ rights and stadium security targeting slogans supporting anti-government protests in Iran.

German footballers put their hands tightly behind their mouths for a pre-match photo after the ‘One Love’ ban.

That didn’t stop Qatar from signing a 15-year deal to supply Germany with natural gas a few days later, but some Qataris, angered by criticism from Berlin and other capitals, welcomed the German team’s early knockout.

“All seven teams in the #OneLove tie are now out of the #WorldCup. Maybe if they focused more on football than the protests, they wouldn’t be here,” tweeted Qatari writer Reem al-Harmi.

Another European diplomat said the tournament provided a platform for political issues. “From a Western perspective, criticism has not gone away,” they said.

“You can’t separate sports and politics. But when the game starts, the next 90 minutes will be about the game, not politics.”


Concerns about logistical challenges in Qatar, which hosted an event of this magnitude for the first time, were raised in September when marshals struggled to control crowds leaving the opening match at the country’s biggest stadium. However, the World Cup itself went mostly smoothly.

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“Everything is the same and stable. No obstacles,” said one official, smiling and holding hands, after Argentina’s loss to Saudi Arabia three weeks ago at the same stadium.

Restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the conservative Muslim country drew a lot of attention ahead of kick-off, but many fans in attendance ultimately shrugged off the issue.

These curbs likely helped keep the crowd safe, and the lower-than-expected turnout, while disappointing for organizers, will put less strain on the buildings.

The government predicted 1.2 million influx during the month-long tournament, but only 765,000 visitors came in the first two busiest weeks, with 32 teams competing and four matches each day.

Qatar says the numbers do not tell the full story of the competition, which has attracted fans from Southeast Asia, South America, Europe and across the Arab world.

“We think this is the most inclusive World Cup,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the Washington Post last week. “They all come here and enjoy football.”

Reporting by Andrew Mills in Doha and Dominic Evans in London; Edited by Ghaida Ghantous and Crispian Balmer

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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