MARTIN SAMUEL: Qatar can't move the goalposts when it comes to change

MARTIN SAMUEL: Qatar got to host the World Cup as a vehicle for change, but change has since been repurposed as more western disrespect… this is the cake-and-eat-it playbook of politics

  • Qatar have vowed to make social changes after scrutiny from the outside
  • The abandonment of the Kafala system has led to better working conditions
  • However, fans have had to ensure strip searches during the World Cup
  • Supporters have also been told to remove rainbow hats during the tournament
  • If Qatar wants to make real change, they cannot keep moving the goalposts 
  • Click here for the latest World Cup 2022 news, fixtures, live action and results

Change is a queer beast, at the 2022 World Cup. It seems to mean whatever the organisers want it to mean, depending on who they are trying to impress at the time.

So, on Saturday, the Generation Amazing Foundation — a flagship legacy initiative for this tournament with Ronald de Boer among their ambassadors — said there would be positive social change through football here with young people learning new teamwork, leadership and communication skills as a result.

Vague, but dutifully reported. It’s what is claimed at every World Cup. Then there is the change in Qatar itself, of the type highlighted by Gary Neville and others, with the abandonment of the Kafala system leading to better working conditions for low-paid migrant workers as a result of scrutiny from outside.

Gary Neville has highlighted some of the issues in Qatar with regards to working conditions

That’s great, if faithfully applied. And then there is the progressive change sought by progressive individuals within the ruling family and their administrators. Those who genuinely wish to deliver on the soundbite that everybody is welcome, even in a country in which homosexuality remains illegal and women require the permission of a male guardian to marry, work, study or travel to a foreign country.

This is the change that is sitting rather uncomfortably, with anecdotal evidence about security guards spotting some rainbow-related trinket and taking the offender off for a brisk strip search, while screaming: ‘Respect our culture!’ For a country that has a down on homosexuality, there does seem to be a lot of strip-searching going on in back rooms. There are gay wrestling movies that don’t have as much male nudity as can be encountered if wearing the wrong wristband in the wrong place.

Anthony Johnson, a member of the official England fan club, was told to remove all his clothes for attempting to enter the group game between Qatar and the Netherlands in a rainbow baseball cap and a shirt with a rainbow Three Lions badge, which was part of the FA’s merchandise range. Maybe they thought he had rainbow Y-fronts on as well.

So what’s it to be? The opportunity for change cannot be used as justification for holding a World Cup in a repressive state and then, when confronted with that change — gestures of tolerance and support for the gay community from visitors, for instance — those same statements become a disrespectful challenge to the culture of the hosts. This appears very much to be the cake-and-eat-it playbook of politics.

Qatar gets a World Cup as a vehicle for change, but then change is repurposed as more western disrespect, xenophobia and racism. The charabanc leaves town on December 19 and life continues as before.

Ah, yes, but no, but yes, but no, but Kafala. And that is change’s trump card here. In September 2020, Qatar introduced significant labour reform measures, becoming the first country in the Arab Gulf to allow migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining employer consent.

Fans have been asked to remove their rainbow hats at stadiums during the World Cup

An American journalist claimed he was told to remove his rainbow shirt at a stadium

When Neville denounced the negativity of the British media prior to this World Cup on beIN Sport last week, the abolition of Kafala was one of the main planks of his argument. ‘There was massive negativity before Brazil and Russia and other tournaments with the English press,’ he said.

‘A lot of the English press have never been to this country, and it’s quite difficult once you’re here and you get to speak to people and learn about what goes on in this region and how things work. Now we come here, we’ve got this massive scrutiny — it’s a positive scrutiny though because Kafala has been abolished.’

So, again, what’s it to be? Are the British press massively negative or did that scrutiny — and scrutiny from media around the world, because this country was far from alone — succeed in securing the end of an incredibly cruel and unfair system?

Neville has made two documentaries on Qatar but the first was in 2020, meaning he was a little late to the party compared to, say, The Guardian — ‘Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup slaves’ (September 25, 2013) or ‘More than 500 Indian workers have died in Qatar since 2012, figures show’ (February 18, 2014). Others had been reporting, uncovering, questioning for close to a decade.

And the wickedness that was being exposed was in part why Neville would have made his documentaries in the first place.

His work is what is known in this industry as a follow-up. And all of that media scrutiny, even by his own admission, drove change.

A fan with a rainbow band on their arm raises their arm inside one of the World Cup stadiums

Qatar’s government did not wake up one morning and decide in a blinding flash of progressive insight that Kafala was inhumane.

No. Having lavished fortunes on getting the World Cup to promote its interests and soft regional and global power, it was now being called out and humiliated for its continued use of a system akin to modern slavery.

So it changed. Rather than playing to the gallery with talk of media negativity, maybe Neville might at least acknowledge the media’s role here?

Not wrong about Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup, either, were we? Turns out, rewarding him with acknowledgement, acclaim and a global platform for his regime has not made the world a better or safer place. As for Brazil, criticism over the money spent on lavish new stadiums — the one in Brasilia was the second-most expensive in the world at the time, after Wembley — in such an unequal society also seems increasingly justified. At one stage, the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia was most widely used as a bus depot. Other venues have been abandoned by the local teams due to exorbitant running costs.

‘Brazilians have not benefited from the tournament,’ Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes said in 2015. ‘There has been no legacy for them. The World Cup still makes them angry. There is regret that we even staged it.’

Meanwhile, during that World Cup, in Morro da Cruz outside Porto Alegre, the efforts of a wonderful social anthropologist, Lucia Scalco, from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande de Sul, highlighted by my colleague Ian Herbert, succeeded in getting electrical power to houses that previously had to steal it illegally from the grid.

The young men climbing up poles and pylons to do the wire-twirling — known locally as gatos, meaning cats — were frequently electrocuted and killed, and the connections often fired sparks, burning houses to the ground. The state-owned power company, CEEE, caved after years of resistance, faced with the negative publicity.

A fan ran onto the pitch in the group game between Portugal and Uruguay with a rainbow flag

Scalco is the hero here, obviously, but the British media’s criticism played its part.

And that’s real change, right there, motivated not by getting a World Cup — Morro da Cruz looks directly on to the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, renovated at a cost of more than £50million, but that didn’t prompt CEEE into action — but by the scrutiny that arrives with international focus. So those arriving in Qatar, checking into a well-appointed hotel, getting the VIP treatment from the hosts and announcing they don’t know what all the fuss was about — ‘Sorry virtue-signallers, I’m enjoying the Qatar experience’ as the headline of an interview with Piers Morgan had it — are rather missing the point.

The Guardian weren’t virtue-signalling in 2013 when they used the word ‘slave’ in connection with the people building this World Cup; nor were The Economist when they discussed the issue in the same language on June 6, 2015.

That same year a BBC news team, including Middle East correspondent Mark Lobel, were arrested and imprisoned for two days while reporting on the plight of migrant workers. Arrested for virtue-signalling, obviously.

There is a song by The Fall, written at the time of the Falklands War: Marquis Cha-Cha. Contrary to most art from that period, this tells the story of a left-leaning student, so desperate to oppose the British government, he ends up siding with the militarist right-wing regime of General Galtieri and broadcasting from Argentina as a Lord Haw-Haw figure — the Marquis Cha-Cha of the title.

Hey you people over there

And those in sea and air

It’s been theirs for years

It is a good life here

Football and beer much superior

Gringo gets cheap servant staff

Low tax and a dusky wife…

By the same token, the counter-intuitive in Qatar ends up vigorously defending a culture in which, in certain circumstances, it is legal for a husband to beat his spouse. What is dangerous about furthering the idea of a western media conspiracy against the hosts is shooting the messenger, even metaphorically — or chopping him into bits with a bonesaw, literally, as happened to a critic of the Saudi Arabian regime — is not uncommon in this part of the world.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has defended the decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar

Qatar ranks 119th out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and what can happen without a free press was made obvious when attendances at early matches were announced to be more than capacity.

Apparently, 88,012 watched Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in an arena that held 80,000. In this country — not perfect, 24th in the press freedom index, should be higher — such misinformation would be met with disbelief and ridicule. Here, it was solemnly recorded. The state goes unquestioned.

Far from pushing for change, the domestic media is state-run and compliant. The daily cartoon in many international publications is a satirical assault on the powerful. An equivalent here showed a foreign football supporter knocking at the World Cup’s door, trailing his rainbow footprints. ‘Leave your dirt behind and you are welcome,’ read the caption.

The game of equivalency is easily played. ‘I think for what we Europeans have been doing in the last 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people,’ said FIFA president Gianni Infantino before the tournament began.

But even leaving aside that the concept of Europe did not exist in the Bronze Age, the sins of European colonialists were not unique. The Bible mentions slavery; the Ancient Egyptians had slaves; the Aztecs; the Shang dynasty, 1600 BC in China; west Africa; the early Islamic states. In Britain, slavery was not abolished, shamefully, until 1833. A little later in Qatar, mind: 1952.

The idea that Qatar is being questioned by reporters who don’t apply the same standards to events in their own country is plainly wrong. To the debates around World Cups in Brazil and Russia we can certainly add the 2012 London Olympics. Huge controversies and inquests prior, huge controversies and inquests post, lovely the three weeks it was on.

That is what has happened out here, too. Nobody is arguing this isn’t a good World Cup or that the people aren’t nice. People are people, and the football’s great, as it always is.

But that cannot obscure the baggage. Just as what transpired between July 27 and August 12, 2012, doesn’t hide London’s problems since. Like all global sports events, those Olympics were meant to inspire change, too. It didn’t really happen.

So that’s the issue. The nature of change; the true appetite for it; the time that will elapse before it is seen. Qatar is conservative and elitist, yet wishes to protect its small self — Saudi Arabia on one side, Iran on the other — with importance on the global stage.

Former England captain David Beckham is an ambassador for the World Cup in Qatar

So it peddles the promise of change and some will buy that. The morning sessions of padel at the Waldorf-Astoria in Doha, organised by Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, have been attracting stellar names such as Kaka and Patrick Kluivert, who no doubt exchange their five-star accommodation for plush country club surrounds and are seeing the region exactly as their hosts wish to show it.

Like David Beckham was the tour guide and Salt Bae did the catering. This is a great trip for those impressed by celebrity and steak.

Whether this means change — real change — is going to come, however, is another matter. That requires a commitment that is not always apparent beyond the soundbites, the studios, the sales pitches and brochures.


At the Al Bayt stadium on Sunday night, the wonderful, colourful, tireless, polyrhythmic drummers of Senegal were entirely drowned out before the game by the worst, generic, lazy, westernised soundtrack as compiled by FIFA.

At unnecessarily deafening volume, too. The big screens showed lots of white folk howling along, with some in the Senegal end looking almost bored, their own presence overwhelmed by a pretend DJ’s soundtrack. Having invited the world, why won’t FIFA trust fans from around the globe to create their own occasion and atmosphere? Mr DJ, who requested this rubbish?

The Senegal fans were drowned out by the music from the stadium DJ on Sunday night


It was only Iran, only Wales, and now it’s only Senegal. Champions of Africa, by the way, the continent that consistently produces some of the world’s best players.

Even if England were to progress against France on Saturday, the same energy vampires, would no doubt point to the absence of Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema and say Gareth Southgate and his players got lucky, again.

Gareth Southgate and his side will still be labelled lucky even if they beat France

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