And the Oscar goes to… Qatar!

FIFA’s inevitable decision to hold the 2022 World Cup, in Qatar, in the winter shows them to be as out of touch as the Academy Awards, argues Louis Strange.

sport1On Sunday night, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pulled off a rare feat of irony: the tragicomic, bloated farce of an awards ceremony which the Oscars has become (or has always been?) awarded the accolade of Best Picture to Birdman, Alejandro Iñárritu’s behind-the-scenes portrayal of a tragicomic, bloated farce of a theatre production, a film which relegates its own medium to the status of secondary art form and openly mocks the industry and all that comes with it (which must include awards ceremonies). But, rather than providing evidence of some sort of humble self-awareness, the Academy have, in “honouring” Birdman, reached the point where they are literally standing up and applauding the ruins of their own decadence, crumbling around them.

And yet, in the grand competition to decide who will be crowned the most redundant, inexplicably self-important and shamelessly profit-driven shower of eejits in the western world, even the Oscars cannot compare to the greatest show on Earth: FIFA.

It was today announced that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be played in November and December, rather than the customary summer months.

Such a decision had long been expected, but it comes at a time when FIFA’s credibility is at an all-time low, so much so that influential figures within the sport appear confident enough to come forward and challenge the status quo, even if right now Luis Figo’s jawline represents the greatest threat to Sepp Blatter’s dictatorial reign. Only a few short months ago, FIFA’s investigation into the corruption which led to Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup in the first place revealed the entire affair to be not even worthy of the phrase “smoke and mirrors”.

Europe and the East

The Qatar affair is also laced with an uncomfortable undercurrent: simmering tensions between Europe and the East.

Jim Boyce, FIFA’s vice-president, has already declared that a World Cup Final as close to Christmas Day as the 23rd December would be unacceptable, bringing the scheduling debate into new territory: it takes on cultural dimensions, setting two cultures against one another. In Europe, all attempts will be made to avoid the Christmas period (which just so happens to be among the most profitable for clubs and provide the best opportunities for generating advertising revenue), with clubs previously having pushed for an April tournament, which would, on the other hand, clash with Ramadan and create a whole new set of problems in Qatar itself, hence why it was ruled out as a possibility.

Fans seem more conscious of the “foreignness” of Middle-Eastern investors than those who can be identified as European.

This collision course between European and Eastern interests is nothing new. European leagues have been experiencing the influence of the Arabian Peninsula in recent years, pouring “petrodollars” (a word which always seems to carry with it a sense of disdain) into clubs such as Manchester City, taken over by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2008, and Qatar-owned Paris Saint Germain. The colloquial label (and one intended as an insult) given to City’s Etihad Stadium by opposition fans – the “Middle Eastlands” – also hints at a real resentment of this new influence, a resentment which never seemed to reach the same levels when directed at wealthy owners of other clubs, such as Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich. Or, at least, not in the same terms: fans seem more conscious of the “foreignness” of Middle-Eastern investors than those who can be identified as European – or simply as “white” – and this might account for the way that their increasing hold on the European game is treated on the ground.

Add to this the fact that European leagues will have to entirely re-think their domestic schedules so as to allow for players to travel to Qatar in the middle of the season, and the stage is set for a heavyweight confrontation between FIFA’s vested interests and those of Europe’s top clubs, who will be the ones to both lose the greatest proportion of the higher-end players playing in the World Cup and suffer the greatest blow to their profits as a result.

This could be framed in terms of irreconcilable differences between two different and conflicting ways of life (the kind of argument you might find in certain media sources with an agenda to push), but in this case it is not so much about cultural differences as about similarities between Europe and Qatar: both are primarily – even solely – concerned with financial gain, little else matters.

Fans forgotten

And this is really where the problem lies: no one is overly concerned with what impact this will have on the fans.

In the controversy surrounding the timing of the 2022 World Cup, the vast majority of attention has focused on the implications for domestic league football, and more specifically how the “top” (here, simply read “richest”) leagues in European football will cope with losing their most important advertising hoardings – the players. There has been relatively little concern when it comes to the fact that, on a practical level, Qatar is as poor a choice for a World Cup venue as could be found: its population is not significantly bigger than that of Dublin, its legal system hardly makes it the ideal destination for visiting fans (particularly if you enjoy a drink, or are a woman), and its footballing infrastructure is almost non-existent – the facilities which do exist (or are planned) seem to be less actual football stadiums and more a creative attempt to troll Qatari authorities with structures bearing a striking resemblance to a massive vagina.

Now that the tournament seems destined for Qatar, though, it was always going to be likely that this slap in the face for fans would be followed by another, inextricably linked to the first: that those fans who choose to travel to Qatar will now be faced with doing so at an awkward time of year. This is not to say that anyone is being forced at gunpoint to follow the team and “support the cause”, wherever that duty might lead you – not being able to make the trip to Qatar to watch a football tournament is a very first-world problem – but it does highlight just how little the fans seem to matter to those in the sport’s hierarchy.

Media complicity

One of the problems is that the media works in a way which closely resembles that of the football industry, feeding off interest in the game, generating ever more content to attract clicks and page views, so as to increase advertising revenue in order to survive. Even this week, the Irish Times introduced a new subscription for readers to access its online content, following in the footsteps of other media outlets before it and changing its model to try and keep its head above water. The money has to come from somewhere. Every newspaper, every website is tied to the view of football as a product, first and foremost: a product which they must sell and which readers and viewers must consume in order for them to profit from the advertising which piggy-backs on it. It is advertising which drives the agendas of both football clubs and media.

The controversial scheduling of the 2022 World Cup is, far from a disaster, something of a godsend for the media.

And so for the media the whole scandal is simply another part of the deal, another opportunity for coverage. Just as the footballing authorities secretly love a terrible refereeing decision or a leg-breaking challenge – anything that gets people talking about the game, watching the next match, another set of eyes to aim advertising at – so too the media laps up any controversy and packages it neatly as “content”. Transfer rumours, Wayne Rooney’s hair and Jack Wilshere smoking (again! will someone please think of the children!) are all fair game, despite having only the most tenuous of links to actual football. The controversial scheduling of the 2022 World Cup is, far from a disaster, something of a godsend for the media.


FIFA et al. are so conscious to polish the shiny exterior of the product that they are severely neglecting the actual game itself, the on-pitch action, the core around which everything has been built up to unnecessary and ludicrous proportions. You get the feeling that, if they could, both media and organising bodies would get rid of the awkwardness of the actual matches altogether and just keep the parasitic paraphernalia which tags along with them.

The risk inherent in all of this, though, is that eventually those consumers start to see through not just the farcical organisation of the sport, but even the way in which it is reported and presented. The Oscars ceremony registered its lowest number of American viewers in years – some saw the artsier pretentions of Birdman as the reason, alienating the wider public who speak through box office trends, but maybe it was more to do with exasperation at how see-through the whole thing has become (or, more accurately, people finally realising how see-through it has always been). If the footballing world continues along the same path, it will more than likely succumb to the same fate. Like Birdman, when it comes Qatar 2022 might be more fiction than fact, FIFA clapping deliriously in the front row while everyone else switches off.