ESPN Writer Takes All-Expenses Paid Trip To Qatar, Loves QatarS

All those problems you thought Qatar's World Cup faced—indentured servitude, bribery allegations, unplayable heat, nonexistent infrastructure—it turns out they can all be made to go away with a stay in a nice hotel and a photo op with Alan Shearer.

(Update: The article has been taken down, but a version has been preserved here.)

Phil Ball, a writer for ESPNFC, just got back from four delightful days in Doha, and he's a convert. The "witch hunt" against the nation's World Cup bid, he says, comes from an "anti-Qatar brigade" of journalists who haven't been there. Not like Phil! Phil's seen the real Qatar. On "an all-expenses paid trip." Expenses paid by whom? Phil doesn't say. But he attended the Aspire4Sport Conference, and the conference's principal sponsor is the Qatar 2022 World Cup Committee.

So, what did Phil think of the shiny Potemkin Oasis? Well, it doesn't actually sound like he ventured beyond his hotel or the conference center. But he was wowed by what he saw.

I was suddenly surrounded on three sides by the slickest, smoothest presentation I have ever seen. German-made, it was simply impeccable in every aspect — length, special effects, information, clarity, volume and political correctness. When it was turned off, I was overwhelmed by its brilliance. [Shaquille] O'Neal, Lennox Lewis and [Alan] Shearer all said the same the next day, and its effectiveness (apparently the inspectors asked to see it again, in a sort of childlike trance) probably won the bid there and then, not just for its technical brilliance but because you emerge from the room convinced that if the Qataris can pull off what they claim they can pull off, then the cynics might eventually be put to rest.

Why bribe the officials if you know your sales pitch is the best? It makes no sense. The Harvard-educated Qataris at the head of this bid are many things, but they are not stupid.

Rest assured, Phil took a photo with Shearer and shares it in his story. But what about all those legitimate concerns? Like the foreign workers building the soccer stadiums, who are living in nightmarish conditions and dying by the thousands? Waved away.

The investigative team that exposed the systematic abuse of workers' rights deserves praise, but it's the subsequent fevered reaction from other less objective keyboards that has turned the issue so sour, obscuring the potential advantages and positives that this event might spawn — still a substantial eight years in the distance.

Or, say, the particularly restrictive rules in the emirate?

Why worry about the availability of alcohol? A month on water and fruit juice might even improve some folks' health.

The overarching theme here is that none of these problems is an actual problem, because the muckety-mucks swear things will be better by 2022. There's a bizarre credulity in Ball's writing, vague promises taken as gospel. Phil has seen the future, and it works.

The Metro, for which the ground has been dug, is scheduled to open around 2019 and will change the traffic snare overnight.

[...]

It's too easy to be cynical (and that's without seeing some of the worst affected areas in the country). The Al-Wakrah project, which basically involves converting a fishing village south of Doha into the first template stadium community (it should be completed by 2017), contains all the components to make this a rather different experience, so that the "spectator realm" can be enjoyed "comfortably, economically and sustainably." I'll go for that.

[...]

Workers' rights? The Guardian investigative team did get that one right, for which it deserves various medals. At the news conferences I attended, especially the one following the Amnesty report that came out Sunday, the Qatari front men took it on the chin.

"We are a young nation. We're learning too." There were no lame excuses proffered. They said they would put it right. The new workers' charter, rather hastily assembled, is a step in that direction, but the systematic abuse of workers' rights has not been an active Qatari policy. They've just looked the other way, which is just as bad, but they have the power and money to fix it almost overnight. There is no congress, no bureaucracy. At the swish of the emir's gold pen, new laws come into effect.

It reads nothing so much like a travelogue of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, with all the attendant handwaving and assurances that the system will work, given time.

Ball's piece wouldn't be such an ethical disaster if it hadn't sprung from a junket. Pollyanna's Gulf Adventure could have been written by any superficial reporter paying their own way. (It's sort of astounding that ESPN couldn't find a few thousand dollars in the budget to head off the inevitable backlash.) We obviously have no idea if Ball was swayed by luxury—but a perceived conflict of interest is just as bad as a real one. The only way to nip that in the bud, and it's amazing that it even has to be said, is to not accept gifts from the subject of your story. Especially from a nation and a committee dogged by accusations of buying its way to success. But, then, perhaps, this is the best meta-criticism of Qatar's World Cup bid there is.

[ESPNFC]