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AIPS Media : Shortly before the World Cup kicked off in Russia sports journalists covering the FIFA ‘beat’ began receiving a stream of virulent PR attacks on the staging of the 2022 finals in Qatar.

The message was old. Qatar has been under attack ever since its shock victory over the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia in a ballot of the world federation’s executive committee on December 2, 2010.

Criticism on practical grounds concerned summer temperatures in the Gulf and the specific conditions, common throughout the Gulf states, of construction workers from the Indian subcontinent; criticism on ethical grounds concerned the manner in which Qatar had invested its vast wealth in the bid process.

As these themes began to recede so Qatar was assailed by a political and economic boycott led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This was launched in June last year.

Objections to its World Cup hosting were raised in antagonistic speeches by Saudi and UAE ministers. A belated realisation of the headline-grabbing success of such comments is assumed to have fuelled the recent launch of a specific anti-2022 PR campaign.

The latest assaults on Qatar 2022 should thus be viewed cautiously and in context.

Qatar 2022 has always denied any wrongdoing and was cleared of concerns of impropriety in a FIFA investigation led by American lawyer Michael Garcia. Indeed, given the febrile political climate in the Gulf, Saudi antagonism has gifted Qatar a perfect rebuttal weapon for any and every accusation, whether true or false.

The 2018/2022 World Cup bid process was a political catastrophe for not only FIFA but the credibility of sports governance generally.

In the autumn of 2010 a ‘sting’ operation by The Sunday Times entrapped two FIFA exco members into seeking bribes in return for their votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups; subsequently the newspaper accessed emails revealing how then-Asian confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari, had lavished vast sums on favours (allegedly for Qatar’s bid but more probably in support of his own vain FIFA presidency pursuit).

The ST’s return to the fray on Sunday was headlined on the front page by the statements: ‘Exposed: Qatar sabotaged World Cup rivals with ‘black ops’’ and: ‘Whistleblower reveals ex-CIA agents and PR firm were hired in dirty tricks campaign that broke Fifa rules’.

It reported that leaked “emails from a whistleblower show how the bid paid a public relations firm and former CIA agents to pump out fake propaganda about its main rivals, the United States and Australia.”

The paper added: “The revelations will add to growing calls for Qatar to be stripped of the right to host the World Cup.”

In fact, the only “growing” calls now are coming from Saudi Arabia and its allies. Most other and long-term critics have conceded that it is too late, for legal, financial and logistical reasons, to alter the 2022 staging.

The ST, calling for Qatar to be stripped of the finals, continued: “The latest revelations appear to be a flagrant breach of the rules . . . that bidders should not make ‘any written or oral statements of any kind, whether adverse or otherwise, about the bids or candidatures of any other member association.’”

One leaked email referred to an attempt by the New York-based PR company Brown Lloyd James “to spread ‘poison’ against [Qatar’s] its chief rivals — even cooking up a resolution for the US Congress on the ‘harmful’ effects of an American World Cup in the week of the vote.”

A progress report from BLJ president Mike Holtzman in early 2010 claimed it had employed former CIA agents to spread negative propaganda against bid rivals by “recruiting journalists, bloggers and other figures to hype up negative stories, spy on rivals, produce intelligence reports on key people and create grassroots protests.”

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, in response, said it “rejects each and every allegation put forward by The Sunday Times.”

A statement added: “We have been thoroughly investigated and have been forthcoming with all information related to our bid, including the official investigation led by US attorney Michael Garcia. We have strictly adhered to all FIFA’s rules and regulations for the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process.”

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