On a midwinter’s evening in the Arab Gulf, the world order tipped a little further, again, in favour of the unknown. Four-time champions Japan witnessed opponents Qatar run away with a 3-1 victory at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sport City Stadium for their first Asian Cup title. Veterans of multiple World Cup, Confederations Cup and UEFA Champions League tournaments have fallen by the wayside as a pockmark state, faced with financial levies from a 15-strong bloc of Gulf nations, has gushed and philandered its way to the crown of the most disparate continent on earth.
Hunkered down in Mumbai, New Delhi and New York, and collapsing conceptions of statehood and sport in Paris, Qatari investment mechanisms could navigate around trade barriers. The purchase of Paris Saint-Germain by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) months after winning the 2022 World Cup bid in December 2010 was followed by the Qatar Foundation’s five-year sponsorship of Barcelona. State broadcaster Al Jazeera’s sport arm invested heavily in Ligue 1, and beIN SPORTS, launched in 2012 under Nasser Al-Khelaifi, has grown from that first kernel to broadcast the sports market in competition with Sky and NBC.
Qatar’s sporting influence is, in the strictest sense, unprecedented, and less than four years from their World Cup, it is to be expected that some are decrying this result as inevitable.
The Asian Football Confederation’s President, Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, has become once again embroiled at the heart of controversy this tournament for his refusal to even comment on countryman Hakeem al-Araibi’s detention in a Thai prison, awaiting extradition back to his nation of birth, and in that event certain imprisonment.
When accompanied by Gianni Infantino for the FIFA President’s first Asian Cup trophy presentation – predecessor Sepp Blatter attended in 2015 and 2007, but did not award the successful Japanese sides of 2004 or 2011 - the financial implications of the result were confirmed.
Crowning the French, Belgian and English FAs as guarantors of the wealth of diversity, disposing of ethnocentrism and embracing an age of self-actualisation to great effect, makes for difficult revision in the case of the Qatari association. Before 1971, the arid outstretched limb of the Gulf was in British hands, and has since built skyscrapers on the backs of Indian, Pakistan and Bangladeshi labour. Fewer than one in nine Qataris today are ethnically native – not unusual for a state only settled by Bedouin nomads before the post-war oil rush – and this tournament has gone some way to unpacking that complex national identity.
With his record nine goals, Sudanese-born striker Almoez Ali became the first winner of the Best Player award born outside of Asia. He and Baghdad-born defender Bassam Al-Rawi formed quite the partnership of multicultural icons in the month’s events, spotted talking to Emirati children in the local KFC, and after a Semi-Final in which the celebrating Qatari players were targeted with the protesting home fans’ shoes, becoming the subject of the UAE FAs’ appeal – quickly dismissed by the AFC – disputing the location of their mothers’ births.
And it has been a victory of stable foundations – expected of a future World Cup host, but so often lacking in the miasma of Asian football. Spaniard Félix Sánchez Bas, after becoming the first coach in 20 years to achieve a seven-match clean sweep of victories in the tournament, will now be touted as a global managerial talent to look out for. But the Catalonian’s story may have been very different. In 1996, Barcelona appointed a 21-year-old Sánchez as a youth coach, and a decade later his efforts were supplanted into a nascent academy in Doha.
The multi-sport Aspire Academy, opened in 2004, has heralded a world champion in the form of high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim – also of Sudanese heritage – and, headed by former Director of Strategy at Real Madrid Ivan Bravo, has invested heavily in Sánchez’s talents. Familiarity with a limited pool of players helped him step up from the academy, and through the national team’s ranks, before completing his rise in 2017 with a first senior appointment.
When tactics in the Asian continent can be argued to too often err on the side of caution, Sánchez has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons in the UAE. Alternating between a back four and a three-man defensive line based on the demands of the opposition, his side have demonstrated flexibility, heart and some excellent technical ability – admire Ali’s overhead kick opener in the Final, available on all respectable social media formats.
It does not omit the human rights abuses, blatant disregard for worker safety in the construction of stadiums for 2022, or corruption sustaining FIFA’s relationship with the Gulf for Qatar to have won here, however. Both broad churches of nationality, backgrounds and careers, FIFA and the Qatari state are institutions sustained only by corporate greed, subject to few moral regulators.
If that means Aspire claiming to scout 400,000 young players from Africa alone every year – the talents of 18 nations whittled down to three players from each for trials in Aspire’s Senegalese branch – in order to assuage the all-important developing world’s delegates, so be it.
If that means Xavi Hernández being the latest Spaniard, following the lead of the man credited with discovering Lionel Messi, Josep Colomer, or others who ended their careers in the state such as Pep Guardiola and Raúl, being groomed for ambassadorial duties at no short cost, then that is what shall be done.
If that requires buying out Belgian club KAS Eupen to use as a springboard for Aspire’s graduates into signing for major European powers – Belgian league rules need only eight of a 25-man squad to be homegrown, and offer citizenship fast-tracks – very well. No questions asked.
Infantino’s glee is hard to conceal at the best of times, and as the pieces of the puzzle are neatly slotting into place, his only quibbles – shared with few outside of a protectionist bloc – can be of the behaviour witnessed at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
The images of shoes and plastic bottles scattered across Emirati goalkeeper Khalid Essa’s 18-yard box, whilst Qatari midfielder Salem Al Hajri lays shielding his face, at the second highest attended match of the tournament (after the UAE’s group match against India) will stick. They could put an end to Infantino’s ambitions of multilateral hosting in 2022 – his resolution to the dampeners applied by the 2017 tariffs – where he would play the part of prophetic peace broker.
Whether or not he imagined himself riding into the region, legs astride a donkey, there certainly were palms lining his path, courtesy of Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of the same positive PR; the same Vision 2030 plan as Qatar. The mooted Saudi purchase of Manchester United, the $25 billion offer tabled to revolutionise club football with an elite tournament, and to introduce a global Nations League format usurping the Confederations Cup, and the ever-open arms of Mohammad bin Salman, a leader Infantino presumably estimates more the equal to Vladimir Putin than anyone in Qatar, all fire the Swiss lawyer’s cogs. After the Khashoggi killing, and the al-Araibi crisis in Bahrain, the last thing Infantino needed was the UAE to squeeze from his grip. It was already going to be a risky month; after the Qatar-Saudi meeting passed almost without incident, geopolitical revenge served up in a four-goal thrashing of the host nation was not a recipe for success.
It is not Infantino’s story, this month, but his gluttony and desire for adulation, searching for the formula Blatter had, has framed the victory entirely within his narrative. Instead of the Swiss neutrality and altruism to which he sees himself the pinnacle, Infantino is a manipulator, a diplomat whose only technique is to pit the interests of global powers with necks far broader than his shepherd’s crook against one another. In the worst possible circumstances, he will be a warmonger. Less so a Clemenceau, Lloyd George or Wilson, with his terms of peace about to rear up in his own face, however, he’s more just a sh*t Bono.
While this could have been a tournament remembered for the debuts of three nations through continental expansion, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam’s valour triumphing over the greater sophistication of set-ups in Thailand and Jordan, or even the confirmation of how little quality Australia really do have, instead, when media fanfare is concerned, Qatar will continue to gazump all Arab counterparts. Conflicts in opinion will hypertrophy, but soft politics will win out in the end.
From here, a four-year cycle begins, Qatari ambitions with more obvious validation. Victory in the hostility of Abu Dhabi sets the tone for PSG’s eventual Champions League title, and for Aspire alumni to enter the European elite. Both will signify the further shift of global power, to be despised by imperialists of old and the counter-imperialists of today.
In June, Qatar play their first Copa América, joining Paraguay in Rio, Colombia in São Paulo and Argentina in Porto Alegre; it is no coincidence that other top-tier nations will search out Sánchez’s side for competitive action. These will be prosperous times in the desert.
Football forms only a small mechanism of the wider pattern of redemption, and whether Infantino’s FIFA can repeat the trick performed in Russia, or exceed it by unifying not only one state but three, will depend on the increasingly unpredictable place of sport in social politics. And in this brave new world for football, with all its innovation and philanthropy, no case better illustrates its naked scramble for identity, aligning its values with internationally contradictory law, as al-Araibi’s.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!