AT this time of year, when teams fall at a final hurdle, say in a cup final or a play-off crunch match, there is inevitably talk of it being ‘a game too far’.
But the same phrase could be applied to Scotland’s imminent meeting with Qatar. Not because there is a danger the players will be be dead on their feet – several, indeed, have not played since the beginning of this month. But because of everything that surrounds the taking of a fixture with a country that is so deeply associated with a plot, and there’s no other way of putting it, to buy the World Cup. Morally, is it a game too far?
Qatar’s successful quest to host the 2022 World Cup has long been the subject of intense scrutiny, and forms the basis of a book published last month by the erstwhile Sunday Times Insight team of Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, entitled The Ugly Game. The James Bond-ish sub-heading they decided to run with is: The Qatari plot to buy the World Cup. It is, as you might expect, a thought-provoking, as well as explosive, read.
Clearly, the Scottish Football Association chief executive, Stewart Regan, hadn’t read it by the time the governing body began negotiations with the third-party fixer who proposed the friendly clash with Qatar. Although rumoured for several weeks prior, the fixture was finally confirmed, slightly meekly it must be said, on 9 April, shortly before Blake and Calvert’s forensically researched tome saw the light of day.
However, much of their findings were published in a series of articles carried by the Sunday Times nearly a year ago, in the run-up to the Brazil World Cup. These detailed the bribes, bungs and slush funds that helped a tiny Gulf state ‘win’ the right to host the world’s most-prized sporting tournament. While even greater detail is contained in the book, their central findings shouldn’t really have passed anyone by, since they have been in circulation for nearly 12 months.
Meanwhile, migrant construction workers are continuing to die by the dozen on World Cup stadium construction sites. As things stood earlier this month, Play Fair Qatar estimated that 62 workers will have perished for each game played at the 2022 World Cup. As many as 4,000, the same organisation estimates, will have died by the start of the tournament, which, while still seven years away, is already five years closer since Qatar so controversially emerged as World Cup-host winners in 2010.
And now Fifa has been shaken to its allegedly rotten core by a series of arrests on Wednesday morning, when several high-ranking Fifa officials past and present were taken into custody on racketeering and corruption charges. While these indictments do not – yet – concern the 2022 World Cup-voting process, Jack Warner, pictured, and Nicolas Leoz, two of the 22 members of Fifa’s executive committee who decided the outcome of that vote, were among the nine individuals arrested.
It’s perfect timing, then, for the SFA to be rolling out the welcome mat to the various dignitaries travelling with the Qatar national side, who play Gordon Strachan’s side at Easter Road a week today.
Not that they will be the first to do this. Northern Ireland have a friendly arranged on Sunday against Qatar, who, it also must be noted, are staying at the well-appointed St George’s Park training academy near Burton – the football headquarters of the English FA. This despite the fact the English FA chief executive, Greg Dyke, is one of the most outspoken critics of the way in which Qatar were allowed to gain victory in their World Cup bid.
So, Scotland do not stand alone in the dock. Indeed, it is easy to see how expedient this clash with Qatar is. Strachan wanted a game – not too demanding, yet at the same time onerous enough to act as a worthwhile outing – before the crucial Euro 2016 qualifying clash with Republic of Ireland a fortnight tomorrow.
Conveniently already stationed in Britain, Qatar are also unbeaten in their last four matches, so will surely provide a decent test. The result is not as unimportant as many might assume, given the game’s ‘international challenge match’ billing.
Rather than play a game against a club or semi-pro side, which truly wouldn’t count for anything, by taking on opposition with a low Fifa ranking Scotland risk affecting which pot they go into when the draw for the next World Cup qualifying groups is made in July. This places the decision to play Qatar even further into the ‘more trouble than it’s worth’ category. It is fair to ask whether the Qatar FA should be lumped in with the discredited Qatar World Cup 2022 committee team and also the Qatari government, under whose watch the migrant construction workers’ deaths are occurring.
But the SFA cannot rely on such subtleties to excuse them. They were well aware the decision to play Qatar would provoke a backlash. If the sponsorship tie-up with Qatari Airways, who are also gifting a trophy to be presented to the winning team, is only for a comparatively moderate sum – enough to cover the cost of staging the game, sources suggest – then what is the point of risking such opprobrium? Not that money should make concerns about the morality of playing the game go away.
Understandably perhaps, Strachan was not prepared to engage with a question on the ethics of playing Qatar when it was put to him earlier this month. “I am not here to talk politics,” he said while announcing his squad at Easter Road.
Amnesty International Scotland, meanwhile, has welcomed the fixture, since it helps shine a light on the dire human rights abuses in Qatar. But Regan’s dismissive answer to a sensible question from someone called Linda on Twitter following news of the Fifa arrests – “remind me again why are Scotland playing a friendly against Qatar?” he was asked, to which he replied: “Oh Linda really!” – was particularly unstatesman-like. He possibly has other things things on his mind, given he is currently at the centre of where it is all kicking off in Zurich, for Fifa’s annual congress.
It was in this same Swiss city where Sheikha Mozah, a particularly elegant member of the Qatari royal family, spoke on behalf of her country’s World Cup bid team, at the final round of presentations in December 2010. As detailed in The Ugly Game, she ended with a question of her own. “When? When do you think is the right time for this,” – she motioned around the room, the authors note, at the ranks of fixers and rival members of other bid teams in their made-to measure suits, which perhaps said it all – “to come to the Middle East?”
So long as it comes at the cost of even one life, “never” should surely have been the reply. Just as a polite but firm “no, thank you, we’ll look elsewhere” ought to have been the answer when Scotland’s no-win friendly with Qatar was first proposed.