Why Big Business Can’t Get Enough of the World Cup, Scandal and All – The New York Times

The World Cup in Qatar, which started this week, has been plagued by controversy — and yet companies and countries are tripping over themselves to be part of the show.

When the opening game of the World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday, Mohamed Jaidah was in prime position. The Qatari executive sank into a couch in Al Bayt Stadium’s V.I.P. hospitality suite, with its buffet and open bar (alcohol is included for the select audience despite being banned for most fans) and a dead-on view of the pitch, marveling at the fact that the tournament was happening at all.

Mr. Jaidah, the group executive director of Jaidah Group, a distribution partner in Qatar for Hyundai, a FIFA sponsor, still couldn’t help bringing up an old wound. “A lot of people here weren’t happy in 2010 about us winning the rights to host the World Cup,” he said. “But it made us even prouder to have gone through 12 years of media hell.”

The “hell” has been well documented, by The Times and others. It includes accusations by human rights organizations that thousands of migrant workers died in the process of building seven World Cup stadiums and other projects in the blistering desert heat; the government has acknowledged three work-related deaths. And there are still questions over how FIFA, soccer’s powerful governing body, allowed one of the biggest sporting events on the planet to be hosted by a tiny country where homosexuality can land you in jail.

Players want to speak out. A number of European players had planned to wear rainbow-colored “One Love” armbands to support minority groups amid concerns over Qatar’s treatment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community in the country, until FIFA said teams would be penalized if they did. Ahead of its match on Wednesday, players for Germany protested the FIFA decision by covering their mouths as fans and TV viewers looked on. The silent act of rebellion resonated for days, even after a shock defeat to Japan.

In normal moments, the business of sports is often unpredictable and messy. Few organizations have cashed in on that reality like FIFA, which has a power unmatched in professional sports. Countries — the next World Cup will be in the United States, Canada and Mexico — trip over themselves for the chance to host the nearly monthlong tournament. Many governments in Asia, South America and Africa, future growth markets for big business, care little about the social issues that dominate Western news media coverage. It’s all a sharp contrast to the way cities have often had to abandon plans to bid to host the Olympics in the face of fierce public opposition. And FIFA, mindful that soccer is a winning program for governments, has promised large funding for its national associations — a sure way to keep countries loyal.

FIFA stunned the soccer world in 2010 when its executive members voted for Qatar as the 2022 host, beating out the U.S. In 2015, Loretta Lynch, then the U.S. attorney general, indicted 14 FIFA officials and marketing executives, claiming “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption, including $150 million in bribes paid to lock up World Cup marketing deals over a 24-year period. F.B.I. raids and arrests led to the near-collapse of football’s governing body, and Sepp Blatter, its longtime president, resigned. Then, in 2020, the Justice Department said that a handful of FIFA’s voting executives had received millions of dollars in bribes to secure the 2018 World Cup hosting rights for Russia, and those for Qatar four years later.

Qatar has denied any wrongdoing, and FIFA says it has purged the organization of bad actors.

Still, the biggest brands, including Visa, Sony and McDonald’s, were quick to sign up and showed little sign of jumping ship amid the controversy. When Bloomberg contacted 76 FIFA sponsors and teams this month, not one said it was reconsidering its participation. Adidas expects up to a 400-million euro sales boost from the tournament.

Yet even once they have spent tens of millions, the rules can change and companies are powerless to do much about it. Two days before the start of the tournament, Qatar banned alcohol at the event’s eight stadiums. AB InBev, the drinks group that pays FIFA $75 million for each four-year World Cup cycle so its Budweiser brand can be a beer sponsor, had to whisk its products out of the venues and cancel a number of marketing events. Budweiser’s now-deleted response on Twitter: “Well, this is awkward.” Less awkward: Budweiser will be back as a sponsor at 2026 World Cup, though it’s reportedly seeking a discount from FIFA.

The market has spoken: There has been no detectable business boycott and, as FIFA points out, sponsorships are sold out, with longtime partners like Coca-Cola and Adidas appearing alongside newcomers like Crypto.com.

Back home, many of these companies are quick to advertise their environmental, social and governance, or E.S.G., credentials, and market their commitment to causes such as L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Yet even in an era where a corporate misstep in Qatar can be amplified on social media, the tournament is showing that companies are willing to risk a backlash that they bet will be forgiven (or forgotten) as long as the world is tuning in. The potential payoff is enormous. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport and FIFA expects five billion people to watch the tournament (think the Super Bowl viewership times roughly 50). FIFA expects the event to generate about $4.7 billion. The organization has seemingly shaken off the scandal, and is awash in money and with all of the power that goes with it.

Gianni Infantino, 52, a suave Swiss soccer executive, vowed to root out corruption and clean up FIFA’s tarnished image when he took over in 2016. He still pushes that message. Just before the tournament began, he robustly defended the decision to give the World Cup to Qatar and said his organization had been transformed. “Money simply does not disappear anymore in FIFA,” he said. “Money goes where it has to go, and it goes into football development.” (Mr. Blatter, meanwhile, now claims Qatar shouldn’t have won. “It’s a country that’s too small,” he told a Swiss newspaper group.)

Qatar is estimated to have spent about $200 billion building high-speed rail, roads and stadiums for the World Cup. That’s more than 15 times as much as Russia spent to host the 2018 tournament. Qatar, which sits atop one of the world’s biggest natural gas fields, earned about $32.2 billion from oil and gas revenues in the first half of 2022, a war-inflated 67 percent increase over the same period last year, according to government data.

Qatar’s arrival on the biggest sports stage has extended far beyond wooing FIFA. “The World Cup is changing everything — it is great for us,” Nasser al-Khelaifi, the head of Qatar Sports Investments, told me in 2013. “It is a transformative tool.”

A year after winning the right to host the tournament, Qatar acquired Paris St.-Germain, a cash-strapped, underperforming professional club in the French capital, and turned it into a global powerhouse. With Mr. al-Khelaifi as president, P.S.G. has bought sporting success, built a brand and now dominates the domestic league. Qatar has spent an estimated $1.45 billion to snap up a number of superstar players for the club, including Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Brazil’s Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé, the 23-year-old French forward who signed a new contract that will reportedly pay him $250 million over the next three years.

Mr. Jaidah, the Qatari business executive, resents accusations that Doha bought its way into global sports with the World Cup and says he believes the attacks over human rights have backfired and united the country. To Westerners, he says, “it feels kind of indecent, like why do we deserve that wealth and why do we keep it? Qataris think, ‘it is our country, our wealth.’”

Meanwhile, the money-machine that is FIFA is winning on and off the pitch. Infantino estimates that billions will tune in to the final on Dec. 18, an unmissable marketing opportunity.

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