Why you should care
The tiny Gulf nation is turning soccer into a successful vehicle to defeat its regional enemies on and off the pitch.
The United Arab Emirates could do nothing but watch the ball ricochet off the right post and into the back of the net. It was Jan. 29, and the goal put the UAE down 2-0 to Qatar, which would eventually score two more against the hosts to advance to the Asian Cup Final and win.
The Asian Cup wasn’t just any tournament: It was a proxy in the broader Gulf dispute. Since June 2017, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been blockading Qatar, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and inching closer to Iran. The blockade prevented most Qataris from traveling to the UAE to see the games. Qatar defeated both its rivals in the tournament despite its team being pelted by sandals and bottles by hostile fans. It was among a series of 2019 wins that Qatar has netted in the soccer world, both on and off the pitch, turning the sport into a critical — and successful — diplomatic weapon for the country.
In April, Qatar’s candidate, Souad al-Mohannadi, was elected to the FIFA Council, enabling Qatar to make stronger connections in the international governing soccer body. What’s more, Saudi and Emirati candidates lost their council election bids. The Asian Cup had already cemented Qatar’s status as the best soccer country in the Gulf. But nothing is more precious than the 2022 World Cup, which Qatar considers central to its brand and legitimacy as a nation.
When you think of England and Brazil, you think of soccer. Qatar wants to be viewed in the same way.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprises, Salford Business School
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been pressuring FIFA to let them co-host the World Cup by expanding the sport’s apex tournament from 32 teams to 48. But those hopes of stealing a slice of the World Cup were dashed after FIFA President Gianni Infantino announced on May 22 that it wasn’t feasible to increase the number of teams. Doha, Qatar’s capital, has invested billions of dollars to brand itself as the de facto soccer destination in the Middle East, and it gets to keep the prize all to itself.
“The World Cup is part of Qatar’s nation-branding and nation-building efforts,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprises at Salford Business School in Manchester. “When you think of England and Brazil, you think of soccer. Qatar wants to be viewed in the same way.”
The battle for regional supremacy through soccer cuts both ways. In a bid to turn Qatar into a pariah state, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to undermine Doha’s growing influence in soccer. The Emirates financed London-based consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, which released a report to the BBC asserting that the World Cup was in danger of being stripped from Qatar — citing abuse of migrant workers and corruption.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also central to an international consortium that fronted $25 billion to FIFA, allowing the governing body to create two new international soccer tournaments, a revamped Club World Cup and a Global Nations League. But the deal also effectively sells those competitions to the consortium. That deal was widely viewed as an attempt to bribe FIFA into persuading Qatar to increase the number of teams in the next World Cup. Expanding the competition would have required Qatar to share some of the matches with neighboring states, because of the resources needed. But with Oman lacking the stadium infrastructure and Kuwait unlikely to want to antagonize Riyadh, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were the only possible options.
FIFA made clear that any expansion would need Doha’s consent, but Qatar wasn’t about to be pressured into sharing the tournament. And, as it turned out, neither was FIFA. “The decision wasn’t surprising,” says Keir Radnedge, an expert on soccer politics and chairman of the International Sports Press Association. “There was just no way on earth that Qatar would have ever shared anything with Saudi Arabia unless there was a coup.”
Publicly, Qatar’s regional rivals are trying to underplay Doha’s latest success in soccer diplomacy. “It was FIFA’s decision, not ours,” Terki Awad, a board member on the Saudi Arabian Football Federation tells me, adding that the kingdom isn’t disappointed by the move to keep the World Cup in Qatar. Doha released an official statement claiming it was always open to a 48-team tournament, but that time constraints and logistical concerns didn’t make the plan feasible for 2022.
But right after FIFA’s announcement, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain launched a joint bid to host the U-20 World Cup in 2021. Wael Jabir, co-founder of the Dubai-based soccer agency and magazine Ahdaaf, sees that as a sign of frustration. “Hosting major soccer tournaments is absolutely one of the biggest battles for influence in the Gulf,” he says.
As 2022 approaches, Saudi Arabia and its allies face a particularly tricky debate: whether or not to attend the World Cup in Qatar. Awad says that if Saudi Arabia qualifies, then the national team will play in Doha. Jabir expects the UAE to do the same, arguing that neither their population nor FIFA would be pleased with a boycott. But Radnedge stresses that the presence of Saudi and Emirati fans at the World Cup would grant Qatar the legitimacy it has long coveted through soccer. “Qatar would be smugly happy if Saudi and Emirati fans come to the games,” he says. If their teams participate, it would serve as an even stronger diplomatic victory for Qatar, by effectively undermining the economic blockade against Doha.
The Saudis or Emirates would also have to find a way to compete at Qatar’s level if they qualify. Jabir explains that Qatar’s national team is ahead of its Gulf neighbors thanks to its Aspire Academy, created in 2006. The academy recruits and develops young players from across the region, many of whom are the sons of foreign workers. Among the academy’s alumni is Sudan-born Almoez Ali, who won the Golden Boot at the Asian Cup after scoring nine goals.
Those goals included one in the match against the UAE. “Qatar’s match against the UAE was a lot more than a football game,” says Jabir. “It didn’t feel like they were going to play football; it felt like they were going to war.”
The UAE — a country also handicapped by its small population and limited pool of players — should create a rival academy to close the gap with Qatar’s national team, according to Jabir. But, he says, the Emirates aren’t entertaining such a project. “The UAE don’t want to be seen as copying or being inspired by Qatar’s success,” he says.
That stubbornness only benefits Qatar. And with the World Cup approaching, the tiny nation is holding most of the cards as it seeks to outshine its enemies through soccer diplomacy on the world stage.