Despite being well aware of the human rights abuses and corruption allegations surrounding the 2022 World Cup, droves of football fans are still enthusiastically planning to come to Qatar for the tournament, a soon-to-be released academic paper has said.
That’s because fans don’t appear to share the media’s “moral panic” over Qatar hosting the World Cup, researchers found.
This means Qatar still has an opportunity to use the tournament to brand itself as a modern nation that’s an attractive destination for tourists and foreign investors.
“The fans we spoke to, the overwhelming amount, intend to travel to (Qatar in) 2022,” said Paul Brannagan, a lecturer in sport politics at the University of Birmingham.
Despite the intense media scrutiny of Qatar’s preparations for the tournament, there’s previously been limited research on the attitudes of football fans themselves, Brannagan told Doha News.
He and Joel Rookwood, a senior lecturer at Southampton Solent University, attempted to fill this gap by interviewing some of the sport’s most “dedicated” spectators.
Aware but not put off
Over the past four years, they have spoken to those who regularly travel to attend football matches and would be the most likely candidates to attend a World Cup in a foreign country.
“Very few fans would say they love Qatar, but that won’t stop them from attending the World Cup in Qatar,” Brannagan told Doha News.
In a paper expected to be published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics in early 2016, Brannagan and Rookwood said fans are familiar with the controversies surrounding Qatar.
They quote one spectator who attended a 2014 World Cup match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil as saying Qatar had become “virtually synonymous” with bribery.
Nevertheless, fans told researchers that maintaining a safe, carnivalesque atmosphere trumped many of the concerns that are continuously raised in the media, such as human rights abuses of low-income expats.
When asked, respondents said they did not see the need to directly concern themselves with such issues and instead suggested it was the responsibility of football officials, academics and policy makers.
“You don’t really think of the workers,” one spectator who attended the 2012 European Championships in Warsaw was quoted as saying. “I know it sounds bad, but you (the researcher) probably care more about that stuff. Once you’re there, it’s party time.”
Other fans said they were excited about the opportunity to experience and explore Qatar’s culture. One veteran World Cup attendee was quoted as telling the researchers:
“Qatar will be different, but that’s the beauty of the World Cup and another reason to go.”
However, many women were among the minority of spectators who told the researchers they don’t plan to travel to Qatar for the World Cup. Brannagan said this stemmed from uncertainty about Qatar’s dress code and local values:
“They didn’t want to offend their hosts,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that Qatar is extremely multicultural and has a lot of women from the west working without issue.”
Brannagan is currently exploring the international image Qatar is trying to present of itself through the World Cup as part of his PhD.
He argues that Qatar wants to be portrayed as a modern, innovative and peaceful country that serves as a bridge between different global cultures.
“One of the World Cup’s goals is to show that the east and west aren’t as different as many people think it is,” he said.
If that is indeed the country’s aim, Qatar’s success will largely depend on the impressions it makes on the roughly 1 million fans expected to visit here for the tournament.
To them, Brannagan said there are two main concerns: getting tickets to games, and enjoying a party-like atmosphere.
Whether Qatar will be able to deliver on those points remains to be seen.
Logistical headaches have plagued several sporting matches held here in recent years.
For example, hundreds of ticket-holders for a Men’s Handball World Championship quarter-final match in January were denied entry because security guards told them the stadium was already full, presumably of fans who did not pay for their seats.
Similarly, ticket-holders lamented being locked out of the 2013 Emir Cup finals, more than an hour before the match started.
Fans who spoke to the UK researchers also raised questions about Qatar’s ability to deal with football hooligans, especially since the geographically compact nature of the tournament would limit the ability of organizers to keep rival fan groups apart.
In terms of the politics that fans said they do not care about, the plot has thickened once again regarding FIFA’s role in awarding Qatar the World Cup.
This week, suspended FIFA president Sepp Blatter has reportedly said there has been a secret backroom deal in place to award the 2022 World Cup to the US.
In an interview with Russian media, Blatter – who was slapped with a 90-day ban from football earlier this month – suggested those plans fell apart shortly before the final decisions were announced in December 2010.
He said this was because a meeting took place between then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, European football chief Michel Platini and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s current leader who was the country’s deputy Emir at the time.
Blatter has previously said that interventions from French and German political leaders helped Qatar secure hosting rights.