All eyes on Qatar - but can the World Cup truly be a success?

ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott looks ahead to this year's tournament

In 2010, when Qatar was awarded this year’s World Cup, it came as something of a shock. Most outside the Middle East hadn’t heard of the tiny gas rich, desert country, let alone knew where it was.

The successful bid was followed by cries of corruption and accusations that the tournament had been bought from the then-FIFA Executive Committee, headed by the infamous and now-disgraced Sepp Blatter.

Then there were subsequent questions about how Qatar, a country with no discernible football heritage, could possibly stage a World Cup in temperatures reaching more than 40 Celsius in the summer months.

While the country itself said it had the technology to carry out a safe tournament in that heat, the date was eventually moved by FIFA to the cooler months of November and December; much to the anger of many domestic leagues in Europe especially, whose own calendars would be disrupted.

Many workers have died during construction. Credit: ITV News

But for all those controversies, there’s no question the biggest cloud hovering over Qatar’s showpiece event has been the many hundreds of migrant workers who’ve died in the past decade while helping with the country’s unprecedented construction programme; much of which human rights organisations claim is in some way linked to World Cup projects.

Those behind the event strongly challenge those figures and would also point to the fact that Qatar’s rapidly expanding economy and building boom was already underway long before they were awarded the tournament.

The workers themselves mainly come from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India but are not limited to those countries.

And while many agree that conditions for them have improved over the years, there is criticism that a high proportion of deaths are not investigated properly, and many dead workers are transported home in coffins to families who receive no compensation.

Qataris celebrated the announcement in 2010. Credit: AP

Even human rights groups accept that Qatar has introduced progressive new labour laws; but there is one significant issue in that many rogue contractors ignore them, and those who do intentionally dodge new requirements seemingly escape scrutiny.

Nick McGeehan is a founding director of FairSquare: “I think it's fair to say that the one per cent of migrant workers who are on World Cup 2022 projects, certainly enjoy better protection than other workers.

"The problem generally, the problem with the legal reforms is that they're not being effectively implemented, too many employers are able to get around them.”

He added: ”I don’t hold out much optimism right now that we’re going to see that implementation done quickly but if enough pressure is applied and enough people keep asking the right questions and demanding that reforms be put in place and made effective, then it is possible we could have a silver lining to some fairly dark clouds.”

Laws have improved, organisations have said, but not all contractors follow them. Credit: ITV News

While in Qatar recently, accompanied by World Cup representatives, we were taken to the Lusail stadium where the World Cup final will be played and were introduced to two Bangladeshi men who’d been working on the construction there.

Both told us that by coming to Qatar and sending money home, their families have a better life. It is true that very often conditions for construction workers in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are far worse than in the Middle East. Qatar also pays more and has recently introduced a minimum wage.

“The medical facilities and food are ok; I have my own space and plenty of time to rest,” one of them told us. Their only real concern was that if these improvements would be maintained in the construction industry once the World Cup was over and the rest of the world moves on.

We were also shown their accommodation which was a far cry from the cramped, intolerable housing ITV News had witnessed on previous visits, but we did not get to see anywhere that wasn’t part of our ‘official’ tour.

The question of human rights in Qatar stretches beyond construction workers. It is one of 11 countries in the world where same-sex relations are still a crime punishable by prison. But organisers insist - even though that law will still be in place - fans from the LGBTQ+ community will be made welcome.

However often you ask or in whichever way you phrase the question about the concerns of gay and lesbian couples you get the same answer. Fatma Al Nuaimi, a Qatari, is the director of communications for the Supreme Committee who are responsible for staging the World Cup.

Fatma Al Nuaimi says the tournament will be inclusive. Credit: ITV News

“We welcome everyone, we’re committed to actually making this an inclusive World Cup and for us we would not look into anything else like to their gender, to their religion, to their orientation. Everyone is welcome.”

She does however advise against public displays of affection, not just among same-sex couples but all couples as it is frowned upon in Qatar.

“Qatar does have its own culture and its own tradition and what we’re actually asking the international scene is to respect our culture and tradition. And I think this is natural for anyone who wants to travel to any part of the world, you would always respect the local customs of that country.”

Many are proud that an Arab nation is hosting the World Cup. Credit: AP

It is also a crime to be drunk in public in Qatar and the sale of alcohol is strictly controlled; only luxury hotels and some bars and restaurants are permitted to serve it. It is still unclear whether fan-zones or stadia will be granted temporary licenses and whether the regulations will be relaxed for the duration of the tournament.

Qatar chalked off another milestone in December with the Amir Cup final, which was the first match to be played at the last stadium to be inaugurated in 2021.

Al Thumama was the fifth out of eight World Cup venues to be opened ahead of the main event in eight months’ time. Qatar has also recently hosted the Arab Cup; the biggest dress rehearsal it is going to get.

British football fans will experience something very different in Qatar. Credit: ITV News

For British fans intending to come to Qatar it will be an experience like no World Cup before it. Given the proximity of the stadia - the closest are just 5km apart, the furthest 75 km - those that want to can quite easily go to three games in one day during the group stages, aided by its new Metro system built, of course, by its migrant workforce.

The schedule also means fans can choose their accommodation and stick with it throughout, rather than having to travel vast distances to follow their team as in previous major tournaments like Russia or Brazil.

In addition to hotels, fans will be encouraged to explore other places to stay including giant cruise ships docked at the port and any number of up-market out-of-town campsites.

When Qatar was first awarded the World Cup there were many who were convinced it would never happen; it is and it will almost certainly be a slick, trouble-free tournament. Despite the tensions in the region between Qatar and its near neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, for the Middle East it will be a landmark moment.

Many outside the region will see it simply as ‘sports-washing’; essentially the act of using a prestigious event to create positive PR and distract from a country’s record on human rights. Qatar is not the only territory in the critics’ crosshairs; most recently Saudi Arabia and China faced and are still facing similar allegations of using sport to bolster their image.

There is no question Qatar’s position as a World Cup host has, for the best part of a decade, pushed it into the global spotlight. It is not only a very rich country but is now also well-known, and is about to become even more so.