In November 2010, a delegation of executives from the committee leading England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup met the then Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson.
They were, according to reports at the time, concerned that a planned Panorama investigation could be “the final nail in the coffin” for their bid to host the World Cup in 2018.
A few years later, FIFA’s secretary general Jerome Valcke would remark in a slightly different context that “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup” but there were plenty who felt the same about democracy when bidding for one.
The BBC and Sunday Times were seen as a nuisance as they reported on the bidding process.
Two members of the FIFA executive committee had been suspended following a Sunday Times investigation.
The Guardian reported at the time that one senior bid source has said “it is a fact that England’s chances have been damaged among Fifa executive committee members. If the Panorama is broadcast that will damage our chances further.”
This was a widely held view among those at the top of football administration.
“One can ask whether it is appropriate for newspapers and journalists to set traps for people,” Sepp Blatter remarked.
Others also raised their concerns. “Forging identity, fabricating evidence and setting traps are unethical behaviours in my point of view,” wrote one on his blog.
The writer was the Qatari FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam. He provided further insight into an alternative way of doing things: “One thing about Middle East media, these are rare happenings there.”
If anyone on the FIFA Exco committee was hesitating as they considered their choices, these comments may have reassured them. Some were allegedly offered even more persuasive reassurances.
In those days, Bin Hammam was the coming man. Soon he would stand as the candidate of change against Blatter, promising transparency and reform, before he withdrew his candidacy following allegations that 25 members of the Caribbean Football Union had been bribed with sums totalling $1 million.
In 2014, The Sunday Times accused Jack Warner, a member of the FIFA executive of receiving $450,000 ahead of the 2010 vote from Bin Hammam and a further $1.2 million from companies linked to him in 2011. Warner denied the money was to buy his vote. Later it was alleged that Warner had received $5 million to vote for Russia’s 2018 bid at the same time.
The gathering in Zurich in 2010 was an extraordinary event in the modern history of football. It was a spectacle of avarice hiding in plain. Even those watching from afar could tell that something unusual and unorthodox had happened the day two World Cups were awarded to Russia and Qatar.
It can be seen now as a great carve up, a clan gathering where the possibilities and temptations were endless. Ten of the 22 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee in 2010 were subsequently suspended or indicted.
At some point in those years, it might have been the time to pause and wonder about the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. In the summer of 2014, Blatter described the decision as a “mistake”, but FIFA carried on, perhaps fearful of the legal repercussions when Qatar itself had done nothing wrong, or more likely they felt the noise would fade away.
Russia invaded Crimea and the World Cup still moved effortlessly towards Russia. A year after that tournament, Blatter’s successor Gianni Infantino was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship medal by Vladimir Putin. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken,” Infantino told his forever friend.
FIFA had its reasons for these alliances and professional sport has never been too bothered about where the money was coming from as long as it keeps coming.
Few others seemed concerned and if Russia could host a World Cup, why couldn’t Qatar, even if it seemed ill equipped to do so?
The 2022 World Cup was moved from the summer to the winter (despite hosting a summer World Cup being a bid requirement) and there were murmurs but the world moved on.
If there was an appetite for taking action, it was limited. The head of the German Football Federation raised the possibility of a boycott in 2017 but Germany decided better of it, as ultimately did everybody else.
There were respected judges among them. Amnesty held the position since 2010 that using the tournament to force through improvements to workers’ rights would be the most effective action but they would not criticise anyone who decided to boycott. Six months before the tournament, Amnesty said FIFA should match the $440 million tournament prize money with a fund to launch a major compensation programme for workers.
As the world prepares for the tournament, there is a parallel movement determined to raise awareness of issues in Qatar or at least to raise awareness that those travelling are raising awareness of those issues.
This week, France announced that it would not show World Cup matches on big screens across the country in protest at the human rights and environmental abuses in Qatar.
In November, 2010, before the vote in Zurich, the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy hosted a lunch at the Elysee Palace. He was joined by Michel Platini and a crown prince of Qatar, Tamin bin Haman al-Thani. According to France Football, Sarkozy encouraged Platini at the lunch to switch his vote from another bidder, the US, to Qatar at the lunch. Qatar would also invest in PSG which was struggling at the time. Platini has always denied this and said he voted for Qatar “following a simple logic” which was to open up football to countries which hadn’t experienced tournaments before.
So when France turns off the big screens (an outdoor experience may not be as compelling in December rather than June anyway), it is hard not to think that the time for a boycott has come and gone.
Some who are going to Qatar are promising to speak truth to power, even if in reality they will be speaking truth to whatever front man power has decided to roll out to take the heat.
For the next few months, we can forget about the old view of media in the Middle East, even if Bin Hammam is no longer the figure of power and influence there. He was banned for life from football in 2012, but the train rolled on.
Just as other countries became fantastically safe and crime drops for the period of a tournament, Qatar will become a land of free speech. It has no meaning, it is just another tournament requirement like dropping the name on a stadium of a sponsor that isn’t a FIFA brand partner.
Gary Neville announced this week that he would be working at the World Cup for ITV and the Qatari state owned channel, beIN Sport.
This would not stop him speaking his mind Neville said and nobody could ever doubt Gary Neville’s determination to speak whatever happens to be on his mind.
But it also tells us who has won. The Qatar World Cup can handle Gary Neville speaking his mind forcefully from Qatar as they host the World Cup.
If there was any danger to the hosting of the World Cup from these outbreaks of free speech then they wouldn’t be happening. But the threat to the Qatar World Cup passed years ago.
Given the energy crisis, the silence from others about how the world’s largest natural gas exporter conducts its business may not be surprising.
There is more likely to be outrage due to a logistical failure – if hotels rooms haven’t materialised or the infrastructure can’t cope – or the Qatari attitude to alcohol than the issues that could at one stage have led to a boycott.
Qatar will accommodate the player protests and the other rituals. Journalists will undoubtedly do exceptional work exposing human rights failings but they will be like the soldier in the Beyond the Fringe sketch who is told to prepare himself for battle because “the war isn’t going too well and we need a futile gesture at this point”.
When Eric Cantona refuses to watch a match or the big screens stay dark on a winter’s night in France, they will be taking a stand that makes no difference.
There will be those in Qatar who are “shining a light on the dark underbelly” but they will be outnumbered by the heat of a million suns that is the FIFA World Cup.
Qatar know they have triumphed. The rest is just noise, noise which simply demonstrates Qatar’s ability to be gracious in outright victory.