The following article first appeared in Issue 16, released in March 2016.

As the political wrangling continues over Qatar’s World Cup, what’s the reality on the ground?

At the edge of an empty man-made lagoon near to the shore of the Arabian Gulf, I count skyscrapers looming from the dust. The road, lined on one side with partition hoardings and on the other with palm trees, ends 50 metres ahead. Saplings are planted down the middle. In the blinding light I can see eight towers under construction, three already built as well as a nine-storey building that seems to be occupied. There is a sense of order and eerie quiet. It is Friday, the day of rest and prayer, so no construction is taking place. It is just me and a taxi driver, blinking into the sunshine at Qatar’s blank canvas. 

This is Lusail, a city which is still being built. In seven years time it will host the World Cup final.

“Expect Amazing” was the slogan of Qatar 2022 when it bid to host the greatest show on earth, but four years down the line I hadn’t expected this. Having toured Brazil and South Africa on the eve of their tournaments and seen the global scrutiny because stands or walkways or roads hadn’t been completed on time, I was aware of the unique pressure hosting status brought to a nation. But in Lusail I found something else. This wasn’t about missing bits of infrastructure, this was about an absent city.

Qatar 2022 is a concept that always required a great leap of the imagination. The heat, the lack of football pedigree, and the size of the country are all factors that for most observers should have precluded it from even being a contender to host the World Cup.

I’d followed Qatar’s story almost from the very start. It seemed, at first, patently absurd. The idea of the World Cup in a desert nation that had never come close to even qualifying for the tournament seemed like one of those ruses dreamed up by a western PR agency playing to the vanity of an egotistical sheikh. It all seemed such a hopeless and naive undertaking. In May 2009 I’d sat in a conference hall at Wembley Stadium as the president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari, had not even mentioned his own country’s bid. If Bin Hammam wasn’t going to talk it up, who would?

As a succession of established and emerging football nations launched their bids through 2009, Qatar’s seemed the odd one out. Even Indonesia, with its chaotic and corrupt football leaders, could at least boast one of the most football-mad populations in Asia.

But on visiting Qatar for the first time in November that year, what the bid committee presented did at least offer some coherence: a compact World Cup, cooling technology overcoming the heat factor at least on the pitch and in fan-zones, potent messaging as a World Cup for the “entire Middle East”, not just Qatar’s 2 million, predominantly migrant, population, and lots and lots of money to overcome the country’s infrastructural shortcomings. It did still require a leap of faith to believe it could ever be pulled off, but there was some practicability underlying the bid.

Yet through 2010, something quite palpable changed. Qatar ran an excellent campaign, something that tends to be overlooked now. Its stadium plans were eye-catching, its international and domestic legacy pledges bold and it provided a viable solution to the on-field problems posed by heat. More significantly, the country’s government began putting together trade deals with several nations that had representation on the Fifa Executive Committee. Bin Hammam also clicked into gear, forging alliances that would prove crucial on the day of the vote.

“The one thing that has significantly changed over the past year was perceptions,” the bid chairman, Sheikh Mohammed, told me in October 2010. “People are now taking us much more seriously, taking our message much more seriously.” He acknowledged that in the first days of the bidding process this was very different. “It was very much, ‘Who are these people? Where are they coming from? Why are they doing this? What does it mean to them?’”

Yet exactly how or why Qatar won on 2 December 2010 remains shrouded in mystery. The scent of corruption lingers strongly and it seems improbable that the Fifa Executive Committee were capable of making an honest decision. Significant allegations have since been made about many of its members and Bin Hammam has been banned from football for life after being implicated in a cash-bribery scandal ahead of the 2011 Fifa Presidential election. Despite some excellent investigative journalism and a controversial Fifa-commissioned investigation by the New York attorney Michael Garcia, we are not much closer to the truth.

Quite apart from the compromised process that crowned it victor, Qatar, too, has been engulfed in opprobrium. Indeed its success has sometimes threatened to become the greatest PR disaster of all time. From being accused of being too hot and too small to host the World Cup, discussion of its host status has, since 2010, encompassed a vast and sometimes bewildering array of concerns, including corruption, accusations that the country is a haven for modern-day slavery, that the football calendar can’t cope with a tournament moved to avoid the summer heat, that Qatar funds terrorism, that it has simultaneously become too powerful within world football for its own good and yet cares nothing for the game. At times the narrative has simply spiralled out of control: one website making the absurd calculation that 48,000 guest workers would lose their lives building the country’s World Cup stadiums.

Four years on from its bid victory I spent a week in Qatar. Was it the slave state of global renown? What was the mood like for an organising committee that for some had assumed pariah-status? Was there any sense of football mania? Would the country overcome the “logistical challenges” Fifa’s own inspection team had pointed at ahead of the vote and be ready? Above all, would Qatar actually host the World Cup?

The initial signs that Friday morning in Lusail did not seem positive. Superficially the area had changed little since I’d last been there in 2010. With 12 years leeway it had seemed ambitious but nevertheless plausible that Qatar, with their huge petro-dollar wealth, could make an entire city rise from the sand. By late 2014, it had started to seem optimistic.

“People tend to forget that a city is like a tree,” Lusail’s developers had proclaimed hopefully in 2010, when Fifa’s inspectors were in town and we journalists who had followed the bid circus to Qatar had questioned the lack of development. “Without a proper foundation underground, nothing above will flourish.”

Four years on, the fruit from these roots seemed particularly sparse. Was the same true for the rest of the country?

I wanted to see a football match in Qatar, but not in the way that I’d seen games there before. There was such a variety of experience in those encounters that at once reflected Qatar’s wealth and its multiculturalism. The most memorable experience had been at a World Cup qualifier between Qatar and Indonesia, when the local expatriate community had easily outnumbered their hosts and provided colour and noise while their compatriots were easily beaten. These matches had been watched from the press box. This time, however, I wanted to go as a fan, planning to take public transport and sitting with Qatari spectators.

One of the perceptions is that the 2022 World Cup is being hosted in a country without a true appetite for the game and will leave a legacy of white elephant stadiums. It is, according to Brian Glanville, a “wretched little anonymity of a football country”. The national team had been hotly tipped ahead of the Gulf Cup and this was one of their final warm-up matches. As the weekend commenced, would the crowds be lining up to see off The Maroon?

“Where do I buy a ticket?” I asked a Nigerian security guard after I arrived 30 minutes late, Doha’s sclerotic public transport system having proved beyond me. The guard simply laughed and waved me towards the VIP entrance. I told him I didn’t want to go there and he laughed again and, shaking his head, pointed the other way to an empty ticketing cubicle. An attendant, sitting outside eating his supper from a polystyrene tray, ignored me and another security guard beckoned me inside. No one, it seemed, was paying their way in.

There were around 2,000 spectators in a stadium built for six times as many, including around 60 North Korean supporters watching impassively on the opposite side of the pitch, and 200 in a stand assigned for families. I sat with the bulk of the spectators, a mixture of Palestinians, Egyptians, Bangladeshis, Sudanese, Indians and East Africans, interspersed with some Gulf Arabs – mostly teenage boys – who were distinguishable by their brand new iPhones.

The game was untidy and leaden-paced. Qatar, who had six players seemingly of West African origin in their starting XI (the QFA insisted that all were born in the country to guest worker parents), were much bigger and more powerful than their opponents. The mismatch seemed to reflect a meeting of two political extremes: one absolute regime that starved and stole from its population, the other that indulged its citizens in every conceivable way. There appeared to be relief at half-time and the ground emptied, as spectators filtered outside to pray or claim free food packages, comprising a chicken sandwich, juice and water. A Qatari boy complained “the chicken tastes of stones”.

After the interval, the Koreans imploded. Qatar streamed forward and scored twice in three minutes, adding a third on 55 minutes. The crowd were roused and rose and clapped to the rhythm of the game, encouraged at times by what can only be described as an official cheerleader, who marched along the front of the stand imploring people to make more noise. Was it stage-managed? There was an element of that. The majority of supporters were guest workers bussed in to see the game, although, when asked, no-one admitted taking money to be part of the crowd. Most seemed to enjoy themselves. For some it all became a bit too emotional and security guards had to intervene gently as two Qatari teenagers started throwing punches at each other. The game ended 3-1.

When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup the country sat 112th in Fifa’s World rankings and had never come close to qualifying for a World Cup. No host country in the history of the World Cup has ever had such poor pedigree. When South Africa, about which concerns were also voiced as to its suitability as a football nation, was awarded the 2010 finals it was 39th in Fifa’s rankings.

What will the World Cup mean for Qatari football? “We’ve really been able to use World Cup 2022 as a platform to spread football culture,” says Germay Amanuel, a projects manager for the QFA. “From hosting World Cup 2022 we’ve been able to expand football, we’ve been able to expand the number of registered players, we’ve been able to expand the number of diverse and different expat nationalities who are participating in football here, we’ve been able to expand women’s football.”

While the standard of the Qatar Stars League is improving and less reliant on high profile players, such as Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta, looking for a final payday than previously, the league continues to struggle for local fans. Supporter affections usually lie with La Liga or the Premier League, which are available cheaply via satellite TV. There exists a deep-rooted TV culture that leaves stadiums empty. Week in, week out most games are played before barely a handful of spectators.

“If you are playing in Europe there is more pressure than here because you play to win,” the former Norway international defender, Pa Modou Kah, told me in 2011 when he was playing for Al Khor. “Here you play to win as well, but in a different environment. There are no spectators. Everyone watches the game at home. In the long run, that has to change.”

Germay Amanuel says that the issue is not using the World Cup to ‘create’ a fan culture. “Lots of people aren’t aware of the history of football in this country. We used to have full stadiums, we still have full stadiums, but along the way we probably lost a bit of momentum,” he says. He points to the “really serious derbies between Al Arabi and Al Rayyan” which he likens to a smaller scale version of some of Europe’s clasicos as evidence of Qatar’s passion for the game. A turning point was the late 1990s when “all sorts of forms of alternative entertainment came in and the explosion of technology”, including wall-to-wall broadcast of overseas leagues. As a way of regaining momentum behind the domestic game, he has led the QFA’s development of an amateur league involving 16 teams made up from across Qatar’s guest worker communities that utilises the country’s professional sporting infrastructure and effectively exists as a the third tier of the Qatari football pyramid. The aim is to give immigrant populations a stake and sense of ownership in the domestic game and build the sport holistically. “Hosting the World Cup is a real blessing because it gives us the platform to really reignite that football culture again,” he says.

When pitching to be World Cup hosts, Brazil and Russia argued that the progress of their domestic football was predicated on the need for world-class facilities and only the World Cup could secure that necessary investment. Qatar, on the other hand, already had sporting facilities – including the Aspire Zone and a score of high quality but perennially underused stadiums – that exceeded its needs.

But really, Qatar 2022 was about something else. “Essentially the vision of Qatar 2022 as a bid is not just about a vision for the World Cup, it’s a vision for a nation,” its bid chairman, Sheikh Mohammed, explained to me in Johannesburg in December 2009. “And the master plan for Qatar is essentially the master plan for the World Cup as well.” What he meant was this: World Cup sporting facilities and stadiums would form the keystones of Qatar’s urban development plan; the World Cup, as he saw it, would no longer be just about football or stadiums and transport upgrades, but about changing the entire complexion of a country. “One of the milestones is bringing those things together and making sure the whole world can see that the World Cup is no longer just about the development of football as a sport in a nation or any given region, it’s about the development of a whole country.”

Six months later in Zurich, at the handover of the bid books, he said, “For us to provide a bid that is essentially providing an outcome for 12 years from now, it talks about the confidence that we have in hosting such a tournament. It will require huge investment – but nothing that can’t be done.” In short, it was, and remains, a bet on the future – both in terms of football and the entire country.

Nearly eight years out from the finals – a point at which most previous tournaments had still to be awarded – it was too hard to judge whether Qatar would be ready or not. Work was under way on some of the stadiums and there was no doubt in my mind that the country had the money and political will to build them on time. There was a new airport and a nearly completed metro. But the suggestion of Supreme Committee officials to conceive of their tournament “along the lines of an Olympics” was a big jump when the World Cup had never been staged like that before or in such a small host city.

Football, of course, was and is important to the Qataris, even if it didn’t always seem obvious in the stadiums. Inter-Gulf competition remains fierce. The twice-weekly football discussion show, Al Majlis on the Al Kass network, which assesses Qatari and Gulf football in detail, suggests an obsessive interest in local football. Is this enough? Probably not. Certainly Qatar is not Brazil and it’s not Germany. The World Cup used to be a reward for what a country had achieved in football. Now it is an agent for what a country wants to achieve on and off the pitch.

As World Cup hosts and finalists, there will be much focus on the progress –or lack of – of the Qatar national team. There is an awareness, too, that many people will want to see Qatar fail on the field. The Qataris remained optimistic. In 2011, al-Thawadi told me, “We will see Qatari players in La Liga and Premier League by 2022 and young budding players from Europe will be wanting to come here.”

There was little sense of progress towards that dream at the Lekhwiya Stadium, but his other belief, that by 2022 the country will be able to “show everyone that we have players who are talented and can compete with the rest of the world” and qualify for a World Cup on its own merits, may not be unrealistic. Three weeks after the North Korea match, Qatar beat their neighbour Saudi Arabia to lift the Gulf Cup. As well as a significant act of giant killing and regional one-upmanship it elevated Qatar to fifth in Asia’s rankings and 93rd in the world, above recent World Cup qualifiers such as Australia and New Zealand. The Maroons may not be in contention for the 2022 crown, but with such progress they may not bring disgrace, either.

If nobody cared much about Qatar v North Korea on the pitch, off it the relations between the two countries were swiftly brought into sharp focus. The day after the game the Guardian published shocking revelations about guest workers in the country, focusing on the 2,800 North Koreans based in Qatar. It explained the sixty or so bedraggled Korean fans we had seen at the previous evening’s game.

Impeded by economic sanctions and trade bans, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un had hit upon the ruse of exporting labour to bring in hard currency to North Korea. Qatar was one of the destinations, although it transpired Russia and even Poland and the Czech Republic had received North Korean workers. The Guardian alleged that up to 90 per cent of the salaries of these workers, sent on three-year rotations, were expropriated by the North Korean government. “They work constantly,” the manager of a tower project, which employs about 50 North Koreans, told the newspaper. “I have even built a room for them so they can rest without having to go back to their labour camp.”

There was no suggestion that any of these workers were employed on World Cup stadium building sites, but the link was immediately made in other reports and on social media. “It seemed like we had reached a point where the organisers of the 2022 World Cup couldn’t possibly get more cartoonishly evil,” began a report by the US website, Deadspin.

Over the past two years, Qatar 2022 has become the touch paper for the vast and largely unreported issue of kafala, the system of sponsored labour prevalent in a number of Gulf states. In Arabic kafala literally means ‘guardianship’. The translation is telling, for the system removes many freedoms an independent adult would enjoy, binding foreign workers to a single ‘sponsor’ who must, under the law, also be their employer, and places all sorts of restrictions on the guest worker, as if indeed they were a child. It allows the sponsor to monitor their stay and exit from the country; they cannot change job without permission; once a guest worker leaves Qatar they cannot return to Qatar under a new sponsor for two years. “Sponsors,” Amnesty International says, “can have a significant influence over the lives of migrant workers.”

The system is supposed to balance the rights of the worker and employer. In practice, Amnesty says, “it creates an excessively unequal power relationship, in which workers have limited and ineffective avenues open to them if they are being exploited. If workers arrive in Qatar to find that they have been deceived about the terms and conditions of their work during the recruitment process, or are subjected to abusive working or living conditions by their employer, the question of whether or not they can change jobs depends on their employer –the very person responsible for their abuse.” If a worker has cause to complain about wages, accommodation and so on, a sponsor can simply withdraw their sponsorship and force them to leave.

Qatar, of course, is not alone in using kafala. What World Cup host status has done is highlight a broader problem that a western audience might otherwise have known nothing about.

In September 2013, the Guardian published a devastating exposé of the conditions migrant construction labourers endure in Qatar. It was a catalogue of human misery, documenting evidence of forced labour on a World Cup infrastructure project, non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports. Most shockingly, an accompanying film showed the bodies of some of the 44 Nepalese workers to die on Qatari building sites that summer being returned home for their funerals in Kathmandu.

“I think it would shock anybody,” Hassan al-Thawadi told me in his office, 15 months after publication. “I think it shocked everybody. At least some of the videos that were shown, of course they shocked me.” Was he aware that people lived that way in his country? “In terms of what I saw on the Guardian? No, not to that extent, no.”

It was indeed a piece of journalism that shocked. It also ramped up pressure on the Qataris another notch. From being a matter that lay on the periphery of the debate about their World Cup – a debate that was still dominated by the heat, the size of Qatar and probity of its voters – human rights became a core issue. Nobody wanted to see football’s greatest show built in stadiums that for some families were memorials to sons and fathers who had died building them.

Qatar’s labour problems fall into three categories. Firstly, there were evident safety problems on building sites, which, exacerbated by the blistering heat, were causing high numbers of worker fatalities, some from preventable accidents, others by the stress of working long hours in the heat. Secondly, low wages and poor living conditions, combined with unscrupulous employers and recruitment agents who were late in paying wages and demanding huge fees for themselves, left many guest workers indebted and poverty-ridden. Thirdly, and at the root of most of its labour problems, lies the kafala sponsorship system, binding employee to the employer. This system creates a work environment in which there is little chance of progression to better paid work. Guest workers are left reliant on the goodwill of those that brought them to the country for their survival. Kafala also mitigates against social mobility. If a worker was any good at their job, why would an employer ever let them leave? This further undermined by Qatar’s trap of low wages, high living costs and administrative obduracy and chaos.

“It’s not a World Cup being built on the blood of innocents,” said al-Thawadi at the time of the guest worker issue exploding into the public consciousness. “That is unacceptable to anybody. We will be eradicating these issues.” Blatter met the country’s emir and declared Qatar was “on the right track” in dealing with workers’ rights. The law firm DLA Piper were commissioned by Qatar’s government to draw up an independent report recommending changes to the country’s labour laws. It engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and pulled no punches in its widely leaked 139-page report, recommending the effective abolition of kafala and the introduction of comprehensive worker rights.

When Qatar’s Ministry of Labour held a press conference in May 2014 shortly after the submission of the DLA report, it was expected that sweeping changes would be announced. What followed was an excruciating cherry-picking of some of its recommendations – with most, including the kafala question, overlooked – that infuriated reformists within Qatar and human rights groups alike. Repeated and continual criticisms that change was nowhere near fast enough certainly held true.

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s Gulf researcher, recalls his “disbelief” at this fudge. “The DLA Piper report wasn’t perfect but it was a lengthy, serious and impressive document that contained recommendations which, had they been adopted and enforced, would have moved this issue forward significantly,” he says. “The Qatari authorities seemed to get a case of last-minute nerves and canned the report, and instead announced a series of steps which included better housing, wage payment protection, but very minimal changes to the law.”

This apparent failure gave ammunition to the extreme sides of the debate. For the elements within Qatar, insistent that there is nothing wrong with the country’s treatment of guest workers, the thin veneer of reform was proof that everything was okay and that Qatar was indeed a progressive nation. For the cast of individuals, ranging from the head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Sharan Burrow, to the Fifa Executive Committee member Theo Zwanziger, who denounced the country as the crucible of modern slavery, it was more evidence that nothing would ever change.

The ITUC in particular has pulled no punches about what Fifa should do with the World Cup: its campaign website is More so even than the Guardian, it has cast into the global consciousness the idea that Qatar is a pariah state and has inextricably linked football and the World Cup with kafala and worker deaths. Thousands of column inches have quoted Burrow, an Australian schoolteacher and trade unionist, who has been an implacable critic of Qatar 2022 and whose polemicising has brought the wretchedness of kafala to a wider audience. “Qatar,” claims Burrow, “is a country without a conscience.”

But where does the truth lie about Qatar? Is it the slave state that some maintain it to be, or is it just like many developing countries, in which a wealthy elite presides with impunity over an impoverished and disenfranchised working class? Are the native Qataris, who make up just 15% of the country’s 2.1 million population, a tyrannous and ruthlessly exploitative people, or is it actually more complicated than that? What are Qatar 2022 doing about it? And what about the men who are actually building all these stadiums?

Friday afternoon in early November and a walk around Doha’s main souk and its neighbouring bus station offers a glimpse into the world of the country’s guest workers. It is their day off and thousands of men mill around, shopping, chatting, hanging out. Many sit aimlessly, disconsolate, bored. On Al Ahmed Street, a block from Souk Waqif, where families and tourists frequent its restaurants, Filipino men loll indolently. Some watch a gigantic TV lodged in the back of a van, bearing the logo of Al Murshid Unit (strap line: “Where morals and culture flourish”), broadcasting a religious discussion show in Arabic. The men look on, tired and uncomprehending.

Everyone has a story about being ripped off, for it is a fact of life for guest workers in Qatar. The scorn is usually reserved for the middlemen who brought them there, employers who acted like tin gods as the law permitted and the system that failed most people when things went wrong. There was the Bosnian builder not paid for six months. When he took his case to court, it took four years for the outcome to be decided: he got his work permit back, but not any of the money that was owed to him. There was the Ethiopian who worked at the Pearl Development, a vast luxury retail and residential project on an artificial island, wasn’t paid after a month and walked out to work illegally elsewhere. The Nepalis, whose conditions were subject of the Guardian’s devastating investigation, were spoken of by other guest workers as a pitied underclass, whose recruiters had a reputation for corruption and brutality that went without parallel.

Most seemed to view the Qataris merely as distant overlords whose aloofness and negligence had allowed their misery to prosper. The “what do you think of Qatar?” invariably elicited a grunt that spoke more loudly than words. “The Qataris are so arrogant,” a Kenyan named Khalid hissed in disgust. “They think that money can buy them anything.” Direct accusations were rare, but the one I heard from an Ethiopian shocked me. “The big problem with the Qataris is not on the building sites, it goes unseen,” he told me. “They hire maids from my country and others. The Qatari men fuck them, then won’t have them in their houses and tear up their sponsors’permit. They are left with nothing.”

“Women who report sexual abuse also risk being charged with ‘illicit relations’ – sexual relations outside of marriage – a ‘crime’ normally punished with a year in jail and deportation,” noted Amnesty in a 2014 report. Those who end up pregnant can face a worse fate: forced removal of their child, who ends up in a Qatari orphanage, and deportation for the mother.

Away from downtown Doha, which, beyond the gleaming skyscrapers of West Bay and the opulence of its magnificent Museum of Islamic Art is dirty, polluted and impoverished, the buildings thin out. Behind the car dealerships and nascent shopping malls of Salwa, the environment starts to resemble a moonscape. Not yet desert, it is a bleak scene of building sites, broken rock, dust, rubbish and heavy machinery. In Saniya, one section of highway is lined by a mile-long procession of dust-stained JCBs, cranes, steam rollers, dumper trucks, bulldozers, excavators, buses: tens of thousands of tonnes of machinery that is transforming the face of Qatar.

Behind this cavalcade live many of the men who are making the building happen. Their homes are concrete barracks with open terraces and small kitchens, where they live several to a room. Externally, they resemble the low-rise blocks not dissimilar to some 1970s social housing projects you see across Britain. Up close, the reality is far bleaker.

This is Qatar’s dirty secret. A few kilometres from where the some of the wealthiest people on the planet reside in luxury, those servicing their economy live in filth and degradation. To describe these as “slave camps” is manifestly incorrect – residents are free to come and go as they please – and conditions are perhaps no worse than homes I’ve seen in the slums of Brazil or South Africa. But juxtaposed with such proximity to Doha’s wealth – the malls, the five star hotels, the palatial family homes – the effect of such poverty is startling.

I entered the courtyard of one such block. Rubbish and broken masonry was piled everywhere. A boy sat on an old office chair, thumbing a cheap smartphone. A group of men stood around a carrom board – an Indian variation of billiards – engrossed in the game.

Around the side of the building was more rubbish and the stink of sweat, cooking oil and shit. A Bengali teenager came up to me and asked in English what I wanted. I told him I wanted to look around.

Wordlessly he led me around the block, while his neighbours looked on, bemused. In one open doorway, flies buzzed around the air aggressively.

“Is that the bathroom?” I asked, trying to hide my disgust. Broken porcelain and tiles smashed from the wall lay around, and the place was smeared with the splatter of excrement.

“You want to use the toilet?” he asked, misreading my question.

“No, I just want to look. Can I see a bedroom?”

“You want a room?” he asked.

“No, I just want to look.”

We moved on, the boy hesitant now. I stood in the open doorway of a fetid room. Tired men lay in the near darkness, their pathetic belongings around them, while an ancient air-conditioning unit wheezed. This was the bedroom that five of them shared and which housed everything they owned here. It was perhaps 12m2.

On the passageway outside, a man with a beard and broken teeth started barking in a language I didn’t recognise. The boy’s bemusement gave way to anxiety.

“Who are you?”he asked. “What do you want?”

“I’m just looking.”

“Are you a labour inspector?”

“No, a reporter.”

He looked at me in disgust, turned his back and disappeared into a room, slamming the door shut behind him.

A few miles away from the Saniya barracks was a compound housing Qatar’s two churches, the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and an adjacent Coptic Church. On Fridays, the compound comes alive with every guest worker community under the desert sun.

From 6am until 7.30pm no fewer than 17 masses are held in the Catholic Church – in English, Konkani, Tagalog, Sinhala, Arabic, Malayalam, Urdu, Tamil and Syriac. There are three separate masses for children and a baptismal service. While there were some Europeans, the place was mainly full of those from Qatar’s guest-worker working class and mercantile communities: Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Lebanese and Colombians.

Outside, Indian parishioners oversaw a labour exchange. People came with CVs and application forms and their details were logged onto a computer.

“We have many parishioners who cannot find staff and parishioners who are looking for new jobs,” explained Joseph, an Indian who was overseeing the project. “We have people needing masons, builders, drivers, cooks, engineers, painters, domestic staff, accountants, secretaries. You name it. We have 200 applicants at the moment but more than 400 jobs on our books.”

I asked him about those who had fallen foul of their employers or were in hardship.

He shook his head sadly. “We really can’t help them. They must leave the country and return.”

Wherever I went in Doha there seemed to be an underlying sense of alienation, disappointment, of being there purely for business, in order to remit riyals to make a better future elsewhere. But here, as the November breeze blew in across the desert, was a sense of community, belonging and optimism.

Nor was every guest worker experience I heard hopeless. There has been an influx of East Africans over the past few years who – perhaps because they speak better English than other communities – seemed better equipped to navigate expat life and all its absurdities. Most whom I spoke to viewed Qatar as a means to an end, few were happy there and most had been screwed over in one way or another. They grumbled about the low wages and relatively high living costs. But most went home each year and came back of their own accord.

John, an Ethiopian driver, had first come over in 2011 to work on the construction sites.

“It was very hard and very hot, we sometimes worked 14 hours a day,” he told me. “In summer it became so hot that sometimes they switched our shifts to the night.” Besides the heat, he said he had no problem with site conditions, but the accommodation was grim – “six to a room” – and the food provided by his company was mundane – “chicken and rice every single day”. After six months he saw out his contract and found work at a couple of different hotels in West Bay before returning home. When he returned it was as a painter, and after a spell back in Ethiopia he came back again in 2014 working as a driver, albeit on the wrong kind of permit. He was aware – although not especially anxious – that if he was caught he risked being incarcerated at Doha’s notorious detention centre and then kicked out.

His main complaints were about the visa system that necessitated him paying around 3000R (£550) for a visa each year, most of which went to a middleman, and the high cost of living.

He explained the economics of life in Qatar. It cost him 1000R (£185) per month to rent a one-bedroom flat in Al Rayyan, which he shared with two friends, but while it was small it was clean. He paid 100R per day to rent his cab and 75R for his fuel. Taxi fares averaged 15-20R in the city, so he would have to make at least 10 journeys per day to break even. But there was money to be made, he said, to which the pair of iPhones that sat on his dashboard attested.

His ambition was to study in Los Angeles, where he had family. He worked every hour he could to realise that, but the margins were small and so the dream remained distant. It frustrated him that there was no access to education in Qatar, no access to anything except work as a means to an end.

I asked him what he did in his free time.

“I go to church and watch football.”

I asked him if he’d seen any in Qatar, which lays on its Stars League for free or for a very nominal amount, but he seemed perplexed by this notion. A lack of engagement from his hosts rendered live football an alien concept. Football for him meant watching La Liga or the Premier League on the country’s heavily subsidised satellite channels.

Two days later I was given the Supreme Committee’s take on the guest workers who will make Qatar’s World Cup dream a reality.

Farah al-Muftah is one of the faces of the new Qatar. Young, US-educated and eschewing the traditional headscarf, she is, according to one of her colleagues, “very driven, unwavering in her focus in spite of the obstacles”. A legal counsel at the Supreme Committee, she also heads the Qatar 2022’s Worker’s Welfare Committee (WWC).

When we meet at the Supreme Committee’s West Bay offices, she tells me about the Workers Welfare Charter, which was released in March 2013, and provides “contractually binding” standards to all of Qatar 2022’s contractors, subcontractors and service suppliers, which she says are comprehensive “covering all areas from recruitment to repatriation”. These principles are as wide ranging as health and safety, employment standards, ensuring wages are paid on time, grievance processes and access to information. Accommodation facilities, she says, are inspected at tender stage and compliance is a pre-requisite. If tender is granted a contractor is made subject to continuous “ad hoc inspections”.

While human rights groups have given cautious welcomes to Qatar 2022’s WWC, the ITUC issued a condemnation when it published its full guidelines in February 2014. “Qatar’s new World Cup worker welfare standards do not deliver fundamental rights for workers and merely reinforce the discredited kafala system of employer control over workers,” it said in a lengthy rebuke, which claimed that the charter was “a sham for workers” and alleged that they “reinforced a system of forced labour with kafala.”

I put it to Al-Muftah that while Qatar 2022 worker conditions may be being improved, the root of the criticism facing Qatar was the kafala system. Reforms to kafala were going through the legislative process, she said, by “at the latest is the end of this year [2014] or early next year.”[At the time of writing, in mid-January 2015, this has not come to pass]. She added. “As far as the comment about everything being tied to the kafala system I’d tend to disagree with that in the sense that conditions are important and issues other than the kafala are addressed.”

I asked why anyone would take at face value the country’s commitment to reform when it was dealing with regimes like North Korea to bolster its work force. “I’m not going to get into politics,” she replied. “What I can see in that specific story is that the report should have been taken to the Ministry of Labour for them to take the action they’re mandated to take.”

The problem with assertions like this is that Qatar’s Ministry of Labour has so far proved singularly unable to deal adequately with the multitude of labour problems it has, or even to recognise that criticism may have some basis. The Guardian’s 2013 reports were variously described by an undersecretary of the Ministry of Labour as “a conspiracy driven entirely by political motivations” and “an effort to undermine Qatar and an attempt to spoil its hosting of the 2022 World Cup”. These conspirators, he said, needed “indirect excuses” to achieve the end of Qatar’s host status “among them the releasing of false reports not linked to the facts around the situation of the workforce in Qatar.”

“It has been proven time and time again that state enforcement mechanisms are the problem not the solution,” says Nicholas McGeehan. “Qatar 2022 know these mechanisms don’t work which is precisely why they propose a special layer of protection for the workers on their projects. It’s understandable that Qatar 22 would say this, but we know and Qatar 22 know that workers who are not on the high-profile projects will not be adequately protected from serious abuses.”

The other problem Qatar 2022 faces is that while it may have praiseworthy initiatives to ensure stadium workers are well treated, there were no such guarantees for those building supporting infrastructure. The World Cup does not exist in isolation – for instance, the BBC has estimated that 0.1% of construction in the country is World Cup related – and many of the roads, hotels and other structures will go up regardless. But who is looking out for these workers? If a stadium is built without any casualties that is good news, but less so if the road leading up to it is littered with worker’s corpses. I put this to Al-Muftah and she replied, “At a minimum, any contractor doing business has to comply with the labour law. To its credit, the labour law is very good. It’s just a case of enforcing and implementing.” When I pointed to the Ministry of Labour’s less than glowing reputation, she said that they were increasing its number of inspectors and their training levels. Whether such faith is rewarded remains to be seen.

“A two-tier system is not an acceptable legacy, especially when the second tier of workers continue to be subjected to a system that makes them highly vulnerable to forced labour,” says McGeehan. “Cooks, domestic workers, road sweepers, gardeners and all the other workers who make their living in Qatar are as deserving of their basic rights as the select construction workers who will enjoy this enhanced protection. If these welfare codes are a stepping stone to wider reforms then that’s fine, but they must not be implemented as an attempt to circumvent long-term reform.”

Earlier in the day, a Belgian project manager overseeing renovations to the national stadium had told me that there were clearly workers in Qatar working in unacceptable conditions, but that responsible contractors such as his own adhered to safety standards that exceeded those laid down locally, indeed were comparable with the European Union. As we were shown around his well-organised building site that was in evidence.

But what sanctions would Qatar 2022 be able to take against unscrupulous contractors? “The last resort is termination of contract,” said Al-Muftah. “You don’t want to terminate a contract and leave a worker in that situation. I’d sooner work with a contractor and make sure that we’re actually uplifting the standards.” She says that there is an element of enlightened self-interest for contractors to maintain good work conditions and gave me the example of two work camps that adhered to Qatar 2022’s standards and one that didn’t. “Productivity increased, there was less sick leave, less absenteeism and in general the workforce was more happy and productive.”

One of the main challenges Qatar 2022 faces in relation to its charter is ensuring that workers had not had to pay onerous recruitment fees in their country of origin. “The recruitment fee discussion is very difficult because it involves multiple players,” she said. “So you have to cooperate and collaborate with the sending countries to ensure that there’s alignment in policies and making sure that [workers] are not getting charged recruitment fees at the state of origin and when they come here you find out that they’ve been charged. It’s a very complex situation because you’re talking about different jurisdictions and making sure that they’re aligning.”

I asked her about some of the news coverage of Qatar’s labour problems, specifically the images of coffins being sent back to Nepal. “I think on just a basic human level it’s shocking when you see something like that,” she said. “But the most important thing is you are actually doing things to address it and I know that the Workers’ Welfare Committee and the government are doing things that address that.”She added, “What has been reported is the bad. What I’d like is for us to showcase the good.”

A few hours later, she got her chance.

It was dinner time at the workers’ compound near the Al-Wakrah Stadium, 25 kilometres south of downtown Doha, when we arrived. As ever in Qatar, it was not quite what I expected. The hour-long journey, through ceaseless rush-hour traffic, had taken us from the gleaming West Bay area past the car dealerships and hidden slums of Doha’s fringes and briefly into desert, which will surely be swallowed up by the city’s sprawling mass before long. The road then traced the edge of endless new-build developments, the high walls enclosing clusters of town houses, apparently Doha’s suburbia. And then, quite unexpectedly, we pulled into one of them.

This was Compound 41. Inside the vaulted gates was the sort of soulless suburban development sold to British pensioners made good in Spain: a semi-pedestrianised street, perhaps 50 three-storey townhouses, parking lots, trees. It was a scene of order and developer-brochure idyll, but for a line of Asian men clutching tin trays and dinner tickets snaking from one of the buildings.

“Is this your workers’ paradise?” I sniped to the press officer.

This compound was home to 468 workers, employed by HBK Contracting, a vast Qatari-owned building and engineering conglomerate. According to a noticeboard in the administration block, 108 were working on the Al Wakra Stadium site, comprising 89 labourers, 6 junior staff and 13 administrators; the rest were employed on other projects in Qatar’s building boom. The houses had been subdivided into dormitories. Each room contained three curtained off areas which contained single beds. There were two lockers, a set of shelves and a pin board. The rooms were clean, bright and air-conditioned. There was a municipal area with a TV and DVD player, bathrooms and laundry areas; although the site manager explained that laundry was done for them, free of charge. “Some of them like to wash their smalls themselves,” he said.

Another building housed a computer suite with internet access and a small library, although it seemed difficult to imagine many residents picking up a copy of The Edge – “Qatar’s Business Magazine” – or flicking through Qatar 2022 Welfare Standards (in English) after a hard day’s work. There was a mosque, and adjoining it a block with a 12-metre swimming pool and well-equipped gym. It was like visiting a very large youth hostel rather than the Qatari answer to Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It was certainly a world away from the slum I poked around in Saniya.

Of course, nobody who works 12-hour six-day weeks for a few hundred dollars per month is living in a workers’ paradise, no matter how tolerable their living conditions. The menu board in the mess hall spoke of the long days these men had to endure: breakfast served from 4.30am, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 7pm.

“The workers are all happy here, yes,” declared the enthusiastic site manager, a plump, moustachioed south Indian man in his fifties, dressed in a black suit. He proudly showed me the menu, which had regional variations and changed daily; the men were being served fried fish and dal as we watched over them. He invited me to inspect the kitchen’s complaints book. There was page upon page of “no food complaints”, although the previous week someone had evidently taken exception to the bread and scribbled, “Roti no good. I want khubz.”

There was, of course, an element of stage management in our tour. When we sat down with four workers, there were three journalists and a translator talking to four workers, but also watching over us a press officer, the omnipresent site manager and four other Qatar 2022 staff. Yet the workers didn’t seem too perturbed.

“The facilities we used to get earlier were not so good, but now I am very happy living in this accommodation,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 39-year-old builder from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. When pressed about how many to a room he had previously been living, he went immediately off message, telling us how he had shared a room in a Portakabin with nine others as recently as a year ago while working on the construction of the Qatar Foundation’s building. The Qatar Foundation is supposed to be overseeing various reforms to the way that the country’s guest workers are recruited and treated.

“This is a big improvement from the past five years,” he added of his current home. An old man wearing a Delhi Public School T-Shirt chimed in, saying that it was much better than where he lived in India.

I asked him how site conditions varied between Qatar and India and he replied, “The facilities we get in Qatar are very high. Here we find that safety people are always behind us, and we are always getting cold water and lemon juice in the hot summer. Here the climate is not always extreme heat; it is a pleasant heat now.”

What, I asked, was it like working in Qatar’s summer heat? The men conferred with the translator, who answered rather blandly, “It is very difficult for the men working during the day.”

Another journalist asked about the standard of the bread. The workers talked among themselves in Hindi before the site manager interposed: “The chapati issue is closed!”

We asked if they were allowed to keep their passports. The removal of passports from workers was something that human rights groups have been severely critical of; it was also against Qatar 2022’s own rules. The men became more animated on this question than anything else, as if we’d asked a profoundly ridiculous question. “No,” the translator explained, “they do not keep their passports. To keep their passport is a responsibility. They see it as the responsibility of the company to keep them safe.”

When the question came to money, the men were coy about what they earned – although we were told it ranged from 800-1300 riyal per month (£150-£240). It seemed a pitiful amount for so much work, but when we asked what they spent it on they were more expansive. Rajesh told us that 70% of his salary went home to support his wife and three-year-old son. Besides daily household expenses and savings for his son’s education, he had just built his own three-bedroom house in his village.

Was it the best house in his village? “It’s much better than the other houses,” he boasted. How much longer would he stay in Qatar? “Ten years.”

In a consulting room, bearing the sign “WE ARE HERE FOR YOU” on one wall, Dr Buddaraju, the camp’s friendly doctor, listed the workers’ health problems: scabies, diabetes, allergic reactions to working in heat and sand, sweat rashes, as well as all the attendant scrapes and pains of manual labour. Some were pre-existing conditions that came with the workers from their countries of origin. “They are better here. They make some money and at the same time their health is taken care of,” he claimed.

Dr Buddaraju was responsible for 2000 workers contracted to work on various building sites. Like many of his patients he was from the Indian subcontinent. He compared life in Qatar favourably to that back home, although for the blue-collar workers it seemed to me to be the exchange of one kind of poverty for another.

What was the most common source of death? “In Qatar? Road traffic accidents.” But on building sites?“We don’t see that here,” he replied with a momentarily confused look. We asked him about heart attacks brought on through heat stress or overwork, but he claimed not to have encountered any such cases and tapped the wooden desk for good luck. One worker was diagnosed with a brain tumour and treated. “As a matter of fact it’s not the physical illness which they suffer from, it’s probably the mental illness,” he said. “They are away from their homes, they have their anxiety neuro-system. For those who are serious we refer to a psychiatrist, but they are very few. But many of the workers from India are from the same areas, the same streets even. They share their problems.”

“Why have they come here?” the doctor concluded as we stood up to leave. “To earn money. The quality of living here is definitely better than what it was in India or Sri Lanka. But it’s about balance. You lose something, you gain something.”

Our time in Compound 41 was drawing to a close, but the site manager was keen to show us the gym and swimming pool. The workers were filtering off to their dormitories – indeed one had started to fall asleep during the interview – after a long day, and so the place was nearly deserted but for a few security guards, one of whom another reporter fell into conversation with.

As we were waiting to leave, there was a sudden exclamation as my colleague marched a slightly bewildered man mountain of a Kenyan security guard to the entourage of other reporters, welfare staff and site management and confronted the press officer.“He sleeps six to a room and yet all these other workers live like this!” he said.

It was an excruciating moment, not just for the press officer and well-meaning welfare officers but also, I suspect, the guard himself, who had just had his lower status so rudely confirmed. As the situation diffused, the guard, it transpired, was employed through the site’s security subcontractors and lived elsewhere, and wasn’t a direct or even indirect hire of Qatar 2022 and so not subject to their rules. That was the horrible reality of the Kenyan’s existence in Qatar.

We left awkwardly, one of the welfare officers protesting, “We can’t enforce our standards on people not contracted to us.”

In so doing, she cut to the heart of Qatar 2022’s labour problem.

Back at the Supreme Committee’s West Bay headquarters I wanted to get a sense of what it was like to face a daily onslaught of vitriol, how it felt to face the backlash against what had arguably become the most hated sporting event since the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What is it like working in the eye of the storm? What do they make of the almost daily torrents of anger?

With Hassan al-Thawadi, Nasser al-Khater, the Supreme Committee’s affable communications and marketing director, is Qatar 2022’s public face. I have known him five years and like many journalists spoken to him at the time of some of his project’s gravest moments. Even at times of utter crisis, he has always expressed a sense of confidence, but now, in his office in Doha, with a replica of the World Cup beside him, that seems dimmed by a sense of weariness.

He speaks of “fighting” a five-year long “media war”, of “worrying” about the rhetoric and negativity that surrounds Qatar 2022, of critics who go on criticising regardless of measures that are taken to address their concerns, that “there is always going to be that cynicism and that criticism”, of future battlegrounds (“I think possibly the environment is something that is going to come up. Possibly LGBT,” he adds). In a world of polished platitudes and sound-bites, his frustration is palpable. “I have to admit I expected there to be issues. However I didn’t expect the frequency or ferociousness,” he says.

At times, this frustration seems understandable. Many words have been written about Qatar, plenty of which make eloquent and detailed cases against the country’s host status and elucidate concerns about its many shortcomings, some of which the Qataris have still fully to address. Many others, however, are merely click bait, while some have racial undertones. Even major publications, such as the New York Times with its army of fact-checkers, have published serious inaccuracies about Qatar 2022. At times, a readiness to rely on assumptions and rumours as the basis for stories has backfired horribly for publications. With a few notable exceptions very little actual reporting has been done by the world’s press on and within Qatar.

I ask Al-Khater if the media has failed Qatar. “If there is a failure, I think their failure is to their audiences and their readers, not to us,” he says. “Yes, we’re disheartened and discouraged…As a whole there are a lot of people who don’t care what the reality is. They know the line that matters, they know the line that sells newspapers, they know the line that people want to read, they know the line that gets a lot of clicks on their website and they’re going to keep biting it.”

We talk about the plethora of worker rights stories to have emerged over the past 18 months and he expresses his concern at many of the issues to be raised as well, explaining some of the ways the Supreme Committee have worked with NGOs to address them. “We engage with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International because we feel they’re sincere and genuine,” he says. “We demonstrate that we’re willing to work and listen and exchange ideas and opinions when there is a real genuine effort and intention behind it.” When I mention the ITUC, however, his eyes narrow. Its general secretary Sharan Burrow has become Qatar 2022’s bête noire, an outspoken critic who lambasts its every move with instantaneous derision. “To be honest with you I’ve lost interest in reading and following what they’re doing,” he says dismissively. “From the very beginning I’ve felt their intentions were disingenuous.”

I ask him what the most difficult time was since December 2010. “I think there are many low points,” he says. “I think there was one point when human rights and political issues and the [Michael Garcia] investigation came together and it just seemed to…for lack of better words…the perfect storm. I think that’s behind us…. The worst is behind us.”Having shared similar conversations with his opposite numbers in Brazil and South Africa on the eve of their World Cups, I can’t help but feel that he’s being optimistic.

If Al-Khater allowed his frustration to surface occasionally, Hassan al-Thawadi was still the consummate politician. I’d also known him since the start, interviewing him five or six times. The messaging drilled into him during bidding – we’re a young nation, this is a World Cup for the whole of the Middle East, a compact finals, we’ll have stadium cooling technology, and so on – remained inherent in his responses. Any nuances to the official line remained framed in the occasional pauses he gave before answering.

Has Qatar 2022, in light of the continual bad press, inadvertently become a PR disaster, I ask. Straight away he responds in his rapid-fire American accent, “This is why our World Cup is so important for us. It’s about the Middle East, we’re an Arab nation in the end. What the World Cup offers is the ability to pause for a second and celebrate together on that common platform, which is football, which is the World Cup, which is the greatest sporting event in the World. This is a positive opportunity. We need to utilise it for the positive sense! It is a journey we have to go through. There is an incredulous belief about a Middle Eastern nation hosting the World Cup and I think that all this does is increase our commitment to showcasing this as a Middle Eastern World Cup. And it will change perspectives.” I put it to him that many other football stakeholders from the region feel disengaged from Qatar 2022 and he lists various initiatives the Supreme Committee is involved in at this level, pointing out that Qatar are still a long way out. A lot, however, will need to be done to generate the genuine sense of shared ownership across Africa for the 2010 finals.

When I ask about the perspective the world currently has about his World Cup, he again begins listing off the multitude of things that Qatar has done to try to show that it will be a good and capable host. “There was a lot of effort that was put in there, it wasn’t something that was written on the back of an envelope,” he says. Finally he addresses the question: “For me it’s a bit disappointing because nobody is willing, because people aren’t raising the questions…the lack of belief and the surprise at the fact that Qatar won it – how could Qatar win it? – and some writers have very colourful descriptions of it. But you’ve seen the work that we’ve done, a lot of people have seen the work that we’ve done, a lot of people have seen us building relationships and pumping hands with whoever it was, talking to people, doing the work, making presentations, wherever we’re at trying to be meticulous. A lot of those people who were there during that journey, I don’t hear them as outright critics.”

Momentarily his tone changes: “I hear other people, who were never involved in that journey, who never got exposed to us, who never saw us, who never visited Qatar, who never saw our final presentation, who never talked to us, who never bothered even opening doors with us raising their concerns and doubts. For me it is disappointing.”

The Middle East is a region awash with conspiracy theories and for years Qatar 2022 officials have muttered darkly of facing plots from jealous neighbours, desperate to remove their 2022 crown. Of particular consternation has been a succession of stories demonising the country as a supporter of terrorism, notably Isis and Hamas, and even linking football officials and the World Cup to terror. Qatar’s complex and sometimes meddlesome foreign policy as well as its ‘open door’ diplomatic approach, which gives access to groups such as the Taliban, has unquestionably brought the state into contact with groups most would consider deeply unsavoury. Wealthy individuals in Qatar and the government have made donations of finance and weaponry to rebel groups in places like Libya and Syria, some with hard-line Islamist leanings, exacerbating already bloody and complex civil wars and reaping a terrible human toll. The US Treasury Department have described Qatar (along with Kuwait) as “permissive jurisdictions for terrorist financing”. But the Qatari government vehemently deny sponsoring terrorism.

In September 2014, the New York Times reported “an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel” seeking to depict Qatar as “a godfather to terrorists everywhere”. Israel opposes Qatar’s support of Palestinians in general, but particularly Hamas. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE are angered by its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter two countries breaking diplomatic ties for a period with Qatar over this issue. The report referenced the US lobbying company Camstoll, manned by ex-US Treasury staff and retained by the UAE, and was followed up by investigative website The Intercept. It was subsequently alleged in a lengthy feature by Glenn Greenwald that UAE had paid Camstoll more than $7m to spend “enormous of amounts of time cajoling friendly reporters to plant anti-Qatar stories. Their strategy was clear: target neocon/pro-Israel writers …all eager to promote the Qatar-funds-terrorists line being pushed by Israel.” The efficiency of this murky campaign, concluded Greenwald, “demonstrates how American public perceptions and media reports are manipulated with little difficulty.”

I referenced this tenebrous PR proxy-war to Hassan and he let out an audible sigh. There was a pause. I thought momentarily he was going to vent his spleen, but instead he smiled and said, “Any sort of disagreement or issues that arise are always disappointing for us, the Middle Eastern world, an Arab nation and so on. But in the end our focus goes back to the sporting event. As a matter of fact our focus is reinforced when it comes towards the World Cup in the Middle East. This is why we want a World Cup in the Middle East. The World Cup we look to as a common platform; towards bringing people together. It’s as simple as that. This is our opportunity. This something we need to utilise even more so, to the extent that if there are any differences, this World Cup goes towards resolving them.”

I put it to him that the modern history of the Middle East is defined by self-defeat and infighting. Is this a threat to Qatar 2022? “No. No. The reality is that there is significant support towards the World Cup in Qatar,” he claims. “At the grassroots level you know there is that support. You talk to people and you see that support. There is that excitement about the World Cup in there. In the end as Middle Eastern nation and in the Arab world we are passionate towards football. The World Cup is the ultimate prize, so there is that excitement there. For us we’re working towards making that World Cup has a very positive impact…’And then he was away again, selling the virtues of Qatar 2022.

Have there ever been moments of doubt? A pause. “There have been moments of stress.” Such as? Another pause, before Hassan the politician answers: “Moments of stress. But in the end, you look at the positives out of this…” and he’s away again, describing his hopes of changing Qatar and perceptions of the Middle East. I ask again, about being under global scrutiny and having people close to him like his brother Ali, who is also his deputy, named in newspaper stories. Al-Thawadi seems to bristle for a moment at the mention of a family member before composing himself.

“You know yourself,” he smiles. “If you can look in the mirror and be proud of what you’ve done and confident of what you’ve done, you just move ahead.”

In the realms of international super-villainy, Mohamed Bin Hammam cuts an unlikely figure.

We’re sitting in front of the fountain at his Doha palace. Six lanes of traffic thunder by not 50 metres from his vast two-building home, a short drive from Aspire. Darkness has fallen and Bin Hammam, now aged 65 and slightly shrunken beneath his dishdasha, grinning, is holding court.

Even Fifa anoraks could scarcely invent this scene. To his right sits Manilal Fernando, the corpulent Sri Lankan lawyer and former Fifa Exco member, for years Bin Hammam’s closest ally in Asian football and now banned for life from football for reasons Fifa have never cared to reveal. There are a handful of African federation heads, a former Premier League footballer, a television executive. Bin Hammam’s youngest son, a child of 10 or 11, plays around the guests, at one moment approaching his father and kissing him tenderly on the nose. To Bin Hammam’s left, drinking tea, is me.

It is two years since Bin Hammam withdrew from all football-related roles and was immediately banned by Fifa from football for life for “conflicts of interest”. Depending on your perspective, this is shorthand either for taking on Sepp Blatter as Fifa president in May 2011 or for his part in a huge bribery scandal that unfolded in the Caribbean while he was on the election trail, leading to his withdrawal and ultimate disgrace. His name was further tarnished when a cache purportedly containing millions of emails was leaked to the Sunday Times by a “concerned Fifa official” in June 2014. The so-called “Fifa files” showed Bin Hammam’s nexus of largesse in the three years running up to the abandoned election and included scores of cash payments of up to $200,000 paid to African football officials, lavish hospitality and direct payments totalling $1.6m to his nefarious former Fifa colleague Jack Warner.

Miraculously, this vast cache of documents asked no hard questions of Blatter, nor did they cast any light on Bin Hammam’s time as Sepp Blatter’s lieutenant in the late 1990s. Bin Hammam had been a decisive supporter of Blatter when he sought to succeed João Havelange as Fifa president in 1998. Campaign funds and a private jet courtesy of Qatar were put at Blatter’s disposal and he ultimately carried the day in the Paris Congress vote over the Uefa president Lennart Johansson. When the Swiss secured re-election in Seoul in controversial circumstances in 2002, Bin Hammam was again by his side. Even as late as June 2010, ahead of the South Africa World Cup, Blatter publicly referred to Bin Hammam as “my brother Mohamed”.

To those who closely follow football politics, the Fifa Files said more about the world Bin Hammam inhabited than the man himself. He was a player – and they showed that by 2011 he was probably a more powerful player than Blatter – in what was, and remains, a corrupt and opaque system. They also demonstrated that he was by turns a brilliant and ruthless politician.

There was, of course, another interpretation, advanced by the Sunday Times: that Bin Hammam’s scheming was intimately linked to Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup. Its headline said it all: “Plot to buy World Cup”.

Along with the Qatar government and the bid team itself, Bin Hammam was the third component behind its stunning victory. Each strand was interdependent but ultimate success was entirely reliant upon all facets. Bin Hammam, as AFC president and a powerful Fifa Exco member of 14 years standing, was the link with the 21 other voters and the most important component of Qatar 2022’s victory. Put simply, he brought a minnow football nation to the top table of the game’s global government. He did the lobbying behind the scenes, cut the deals and cleverly built a platform – via a deal with Spain-Portugal, who were bidding for the 2018 finals – that formed the basis of its victory. Ultimately, however, the reasons thirteen other Fifa Exco members voted for Qatar remain, with a few exceptions, largely or entirely unexplained.

The Sunday Times tried to expand on his role by explaining that the four African votes Qatar received were linked to Bin Hammam’s munificence. Bin Hammam had flown many African federation heads to Doha and Kuala Lumpur on junkets, handing out $400,000 in cash. A subsequent series of bank transfer payments were also made to many of these men and women. It was a damning indictment of the Fifa system in which nepotism and corruption are allowed to flourish and ultimately of Bin Hammam too, who partook in it. The problem with this theory, however, was that no one who directly benefited from Bin Hammam’s generosity actually had a vote for World Cup 2022. Instead, it appeared, he was currying favour for the Fifa presidential election six months after the 2022 vote.

Qatar 2022 invariably distanced themselves from Bin Hammam, as they always have done since his fall. Their continued assertion is that he had no official role with the bid team. But as ever with Qatar, the reality was more complex. When I interviewed the bid’s chairman, Sheikh Mohammed, in an executive box at Stamford Bridge two months before the vote he told me that Bin Hammam was the bid’s “mentor”. “He’s always been advising us and always been by our side,” he said. “He’s definitely our biggest asset in the bid.”

And here, four years on from that day in London, as we talk in his garden about Gulf politics, his boyhood club, Liverpool, the changing face of Doha, the engineering business that made him wealthy and to which he has returned to lead, our families, but never really the strange and dysfunctional football family that has exorcised him (“That is all in the past, we move on.”) Bin Hammam still seems to me a far bigger asset for Qatar than he ever has been a liability. He is relaxed, genial, incredibly knowledgeable; certainly not the monster of popular perception.

I’d previously seen him in late 2011 as the fall-out from his demise continued to reverberate. He was more expansive then about the forces that sealed his fall and he still plotted to clear his name, despite the apparent wealth of evidence against him. Whistleblowers from four Caribbean football federations had said they were offered $40,000 in envelopes after attending Bin Hammam’s campaign pitch in Trinidad and Tobago, allegations which were accompanied by damning photographic evidence. Bin Hammam had no doubt as to who was behind this sting. He had been banned from football but maintained his innocence and had seemed in a state of shock. Then it was less than a year after Qatar 2022’s victory and he had appeared sure at one stage of following that by taking football politics’top prize for himself. Instead he found himself humiliated, disgraced and ostracised.

In July 2012, Bin Hammam won his appeal before the Court of Arbitration in Sport, which cited lack of evidence but added that his behaviour was “not of the highest ethical standard” and that “it is more likely than not” that he was the source of the money brought into Trinidad and Tobago and distributed by the former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner. Nevertheless, it overturned his life ban.

There was, however, to be no return to football for Bin Hammam.

On 11 December 2012, Blatter was back in Qatar for the opening of the Doha Goals conference. He visited Qatar 2022’s Supreme Committee and then held talks with the Emir, Sheikh Hamad. What went on in that meeting? Was a deal done to save Qatar 2022 in exchange for Bin Hammam’s silence? Were the secrets of Qatar 2022, Bin Hammam and Blatter closed for good that afternoon?

We will probably never know. Maybe it was just a courtesy visit. Perhaps the Emir – like many world leaders – knew the value of stroking Blatter’s ego by granting an audience. But two days later the Fifa ethics committee announced that it had closed its investigation into Bin Hammam. There would be no more questions asked. No one from Fifa would probe his role in Qatar 2022’s victory or indeed Sepp Blatter’s ascent to the Fifa presidency. On Saturday December 15 Bin Hammam sent letters to Fifa and the AFC, resigning his positions on the Fifa Exco and as AFC president, saying, “I do not want to spend any more of my life fighting trumped up allegations and to focus instead on my family and businesses.” 48 hours later there was another development: Fifa banned Bin Hammam for life again.

Fifa controversies tend to drag on for years before reaching their inevitable, unsatisfactory conclusions. The ISL bribery case lasted 13 years by contrast, but in this one the door swung shut with unprecedented speed following a remarkable series of coincidences.

As we sat down to a lavish buffet in one of Bin Hammam’s reception rooms and Manilal Fernando took centre stage, telling us about Sri Lanka’s transformation since the end of its civil war and his pride in his son who was to study medicine in Manchester, it became clear that Bin Hammam was not going to be giving away any secrets that night. To an outsider, it was a strange, convivial occasion.

Later, as one of Bin Hammam’s sons drove me back to my hotel through the Doha evening, past the Aspire Zone and Khalifa Stadium, which in 2022 will host the World Cup opening game, the words his father once uttered to me came back: “No one has done more difficult things for Blatter than me.” Whatever could he have meant? Was it suppression of this knowledge that simultaneously finished Bin Hammam and will save Qatar 2022? Will we ever know?

This article first appeared in Issue 16, released in December 2020.

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