The ink was barely dry on Qatar’s decision to ban alcohol from World Cup stadiums when an informed insider in Doha was asked why it was happening now, just 48 hours before the tournament’s big kick-off. His response was succinct. “It’s a deliberate fuck you to the west.”
Of course it was. Yes, the Qataris wanted to ensure that fans of every nation, religion and creed feel comfortable at matches – and that wouldn’t be the case if some were boozed-up or blotto. And yes, Qatar remains a conservative Muslim country, in which alcohol is alien to the culture. But that was true on 2 December 2010, the day it won the right to host the World Cup, every bit as much as today.
So for it to rip up its promises and policy so late in the day should be seen for what it is: a show of strength and an almighty two fingers up to its critics.
But, as another well-connected football consultant put it, Friday’s decision is part of a notable change in tack from the Qataris.
“For years, they have appeared contrite and humble amid questions about their record,” he said. “But now with the World Cup so imminent, their attitude has changed. The geopolitics around energy, and the west’s increased need for gas during the war in Ukraine, makes them think they are immune. And if someone attacks them, they hit right back.”
Take LGBTQ+ rights. For years, western reporters and human rights groups have criticised Qatar’s record. For years, itthe host country has stuck to giving vague assurances that everyone would be welcome. Then this month a Qatari World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, called homosexuality a “damage in the mind” and warned gay fans they would “have to accept our rules”. That is some adjustment.
Meanwhile when the Sunday Times suggested that Qatar had been using private investigators to target journalists, it didn’t let it pass. Instead it threatened legal action “to ensure those responsible are held to account”.
Qatar also believes it has made significant progress on workers’ rights and that this has been largely ignored by a western media who continue to focus on the negatives. That has furthered fuelled its anger and frustration.
Yet, in recent days, Qatar has also sent a more inflammatory message: that many criticisms of its human rights record are based on western racism, or a misplaced sense of western superiority.
That message is largely erroneous. And it is misplaced. But it is gathering force by the day.
As Qatar’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, put it this week: “They don’t want to allow a small country, an Arab country, an Islamic country, to organise the World Cup.”
He added: “Some politicians and some media outlets in western countries have lost the moral and professional motive in their attack against Qatar.”
That message has been echoed by local media. When a handful of people in the western press questioned whether India-born supporters of England, Brazil and Argentina might be “fake fans”, the Doha News quickly played the racism card.
Meanwhile the state-run Qatar News Agency enthusiastically endorsed the official position, noting that: “His Excellency pointed out that the false slander campaign transgressed all limits in its attempt to discredit Qatar, the latest of which was the claim that the World Cup organisers used fake fans who receive money to attend the matches.”
What makes Qatar’s behaviour more remarkable is that usually in the buildup to a World Cup, the Fifa show takes over. Rules are introduced to ensure things are done a certain way, and that brands such as Budweiser who are paying $75m (£63m) are heavily promoted. Not here. Not now.
Instead the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, will spend Saturday morning answering searching questions about whether his organisation will face a massive lawsuit, which ensures the story will run for another 24 hours.
But this story isn’t about whether beer should be sold at stadiums. In truth, if the Qataris had decided to ban it years ago, the issue would have long blown over. It is about shifting goalposts and worrying uncertainties.
For years it has talked about finding a middle ground between Qatar’s conservative culture while doing its best to accommodate the 1.2 million expected visitors; an entirely reasonable position. But after this, how do we know that other assurances will not also be discarded over the next month? After all, if the Qataris are prepared to disregard the wishes of Fifa and its major sponsors, who could be next?
Can LGBTQ+ fans really trust that they won’t be censured for holding hands? Will England fans get in trouble for a minor cultural misunderstanding, despite Qatari claims they will take a patient and relaxed approach?
At least one thing has become clear. This World Cup will not only be played on Qatar’s turf, but by its rules too.