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One year on from the 2022 World Cup, has anything changed in Qatar?

DOHA, Qatar -- It is one year since the most controversial World Cup in history began with a sales pitch from FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

After years of criticism over the decision to award the biggest sporting event of all to Qatar, taken prior to his appointment, Infantino launched a scathing attack on what he described as the "hypocrisy" and "racism" from countries he considered to be moralising over the Middle East nation's human rights record. Telling us all that "today I feel Qatari ... Arab ... African ... gay ... disabled ... a migrant worker," he went on to castigate the West for double standards in focusing on Qatar's worker abuses. "Who is actually caring about the workers? FIFA does. Football does, the World Cup does and to be fair to them, Qatar does as well."

The football would soon drown out the talking. On the pitch, Lionel Messi led Argentina to glory in a final that ranks among the greatest games of all time. There were more goals scored (172) than at any previous World Cup. According to FIFA, 3.4 million people attended the games, and the four-year cycle to 2022 was the most lucrative ever, generating $7.5 billion.

Infantino would go on to describe the tournament as "the best ever" because of the "unique, cohesive power that this World Cup has shown." No official figure has ever been stated, but reports estimate Qatar spent $220bn on staging the World Cup.

- Stream on ESPN+: "E60: Qatar's World Cup"

The human cost is also unclear, given the deaths of migrant workers in delivering the tournament -- the precise number of whom may never accurately be known. Thousands more were injured, suffered wage theft or felt injustice at ineffective implementation of reforms to the country's kafala system that previously took freedom and power away from employees to change jobs at their will.

As international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch's director of global initiatives Minky Worden told ESPN: "It was the highest grossing World Cup for FIFA and the deadliest event in the history of world sport."

As the tournament drew to a close, Infantino announced the creation of a FIFA Legacy Fund to provide a route to support compensation claims, offering an additional avenue beyond the Qatari government's own Workers' Support and Insurance Fund.

"I will be back, we will be here to check -- don't worry -- because you will be gone," Infantino told a room full of journalists at the tournament's closing news conference.

In November 2023, ESPN returned to Doha to try to determine the legacy of the Qatar World Cup, speaking to experts on the ground, the International Labour Organisation, migrant workers, Qatari officials and the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy. FIFA declined ESPN's multiple requests for an interview with Infantino.

Argentina's Lionel Messi was draped in a bisht by Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani before FIFA's president handed him the World Cup trophy following the 2022 final at Lusail Stadium. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The sporting legacy

Lusail Stadium's golden frame glimmers in the late-afternoon Arab sunshine, seemingly frozen in time as a monument to sporting immortality. The FIFA World Cup 2022 signage remains in place.

Upon closer inspection, a handful of workers are suspended by cables from the roof maintaining the opulence of the arena where Messi settled the debate over who is the greatest player of his generation. Empty parking lots stretch into the horizon. Security guards sit slumped in their chairs, positioned in the shadows of their nearby cabins to avoid the worst of the heat. Litter pickers patrol the nearby station in hope rather than anticipation.

Most World Cups raise concerns about what happens after the FIFA circus leaves town, but in many countries with a rich football heritage, these arenas become tourist attractions woven into the rich tapestry of the national game. Yet Lusail is a city which did not exist in 2005 but it has a near 90,000-capacity state-of-the-art stadium that, when it hosted Argentina vs. Mexico, recorded the second-highest attendance in the history of the men's World Cup (88,966).

FIFA's World Cup signage remains outside Lusail Stadium almost a year after it hosted the 2022 final. James Olley/ESPN

Located 10 miles north of the Qatari capital of Doha, Lusail Stadium is the site where Messi defied his advancing years to guide Argentina to glory and where he lifted the trophy draped in a bisht -- a black ceremonial robe -- handed to him by the Emir of Qatar. As iconic sporting moments for the Middle East go, this was perfect.

Messi and his Argentina teammates paraded the trophy along nearby Lusail Boulevard, which connects the stadium to Lusail's Plaza Towers, four pillars from which a metallic sculpture of a whale-shark is suspended. It's a curious place, constructed as Qatar's "City of the Future." Deserted stores and only a handful of tourists are present on Lusail Boulevard now, yet still there is more construction in the area. One such project, the Lusail Museum, is due to open in 2029. It feels like a place still waiting to grow into itself. Lusail Boulevard is a multilane road adorned by shops and restaurants ranging from Chuck E. Cheese to British supermarket chain Sainsbury's. None are even close to full; many are entirely empty.

Chairman of Qatar Tourism and Qatar Airways Group chief executive H E Akbar Al Baker claimed in April that hotel occupancy rates in Doha stood at about 65-70%. Sources have told ESPN that occupancy is around 40%, with one source adding it may have dropped to about 20% in the Lusail region.

Lusail was constructed as Qatar's 'City of the Future,' but there are very few people there to enjoy its shops and restaurants. James Olley/ESPN

On the east side of Doha, the Qatar national team played their World Cup 2026 qualifier against Afghanistan on Nov. 16 at Khalifa International Stadium. The visiting side were decimated by 18 withdrawals amid concerns the Afghani Football Association has misappropriated FIFA funds. Qatar won 8-1 in front of an official attendance of 19,374. The crowd comprised a large number of children, who enjoyed performing the 'Viking Thunder Clap' made famous by Iceland fans at Euro 2016. Supporters nodded to the powerful air-conditioning inside the stadium with banners that read: "Powered By Fans."

Six of the starting lineup also began Qatar's first match of a campaign in which they became the first World Cup host to go out without winning a single point. Qatar later reached the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Gold Cup -- beating eventual winners Mexico in the group stage -- but did not win any of four friendlies against Kenya, Russia, Iraq and Iran before thrashing a makeshift Afghanistan side who had only met their new coach, Ashley Westwood, for the first time earlier in the week.

All 26 players in the provisional Gold Cup squad played their club football in Qatar. They were as high as 48th in the FIFA World Ranking last year but are now 61st. Manager Carlos Queiroz, who took charge of the team in February, is pragmatic about the team's progress.

"Honestly, when I arrived, I did not find very much because the end of the cycle ended with almost nine players 33, 34 years old," the 70-year-old told ESPN. "There were a couple of young players with no caps. We had some young players coming in now who are getting their first caps. This is really a very difficult situation.

"We knew we needed to refresh the team and qualify for the World Cup but at the same time you are building the future. The players we are creating opportunities for, when they get back to their clubs, they don't have an opportunity.

"To play, it is crucial. You can bring in the best coaches in the world, the best academies, the best balls, the best administrators but if one coach like me is coaching a player like a swimming coach with no water, there is no chance to swim ... We have to find solutions, we have to work -- the national team, clubs -- to give opportunities."

Dr. Ahmed Abbassi is positive about the impact on Qatar's domestic game. As executive director of competitions and football development at the Qatar Stars League (QSL,) the top-level league in the country, Abbassi says the league witnessed a tripling of registrations at various youth levels after the World Cup.

FIFA and the QSL have launched a training programme aimed at improving the league's logistics in everything from sports governance to matchday operations and fan engagement. The league, which prices general tickets at around $12.50, registered a record attendance of 28,397 for Qatar's own Clásico -- Al Rayyan against Al Arabi -- in September. Average crowds of around 5,000 spectators watch big names such as Philippe Coutinho and Marco Verratti, although the QSL has been eclipsed by the influx of stars led by Cristiano Ronaldo into the Saudi Pro League over the past year.

"We had a lot of new players and it is a much better league this season; this is one of the legacies of the World Cup because we are now focusing more on our league than the organisation of the biggest mega-event in the world," Abbassi told ESPN. "We have better players, better coaches, we are playing at a higher level and now in World Cup stadiums."

Six of the nine World Cup stadiums are being used for QSL matches. Education City was not selected -- it has been used for Eid prayers on occasion, with around 35,000 worshippers attending an event in April to mark the end of Ramadan -- while Lusail is deemed too special for regular use.

Stadium 974 was built with the intention of being deconstructed after the 2022 World Cup. James Olley/ESPN

That leaves Stadium 974, the arena made out of shipping containers totalling that number (and also referencing Qatar's international dialing code.) It was supposed to be dismantled and sent to Africa with the vacated area turned into a waterfront development. Instead, the stadium -- along with World Cup signage -- is still in place.

Sources working in Qatar told ESPN that there have been multiple offers for the site, which is not all expected to go to one recipient, but no decision has yet been taken. Similarly at other sites such as Al Bayt, there were post-tournament plans to build a five-star hotel, a shopping centre, a food court, a gym and a multipurpose hall but there were so signs of construction. Sources in Qatar point out that such is the country's vast wealth, it can afford to maintain the stadiums even with minimal use. "They are in no rush," one source said.

While much of the external focus was on the World Cup, Qatar itself is working towards its Qatar National Vision 2030 which "defines the long-term goals for the country." This is essentially a blueprint for a small country defined by its oil and gas reserves to redefine itself as more varied and sustainable, to be known by the world for something else. Sport is part of that.

Some argue Qatar overbuilt for the World Cup, but others point to the 2030 road map. It is an open secret Qatar would like to host the Summer Olympics at some point.

A spokesperson for Supreme Committee told ESPN: "All of the Qatar 2022 stadiums have been in regular use since the FIFA World Cup ended. Clubs in the Qatar Stars League use several venues as their home grounds for domestic league matches. Stadiums are also used for the Amir Cup final -- Qatar's showpiece competition -- and international matches, including FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers.

"In January-February 2024, Qatar will host the AFC Asian Cup, the largest continental football tournament that will utilise seven out of eight Qatar 2022 stadiums ... Plans for the post-tournament use of Stadium 974 will be announced in due course."

The stadiums themselves, of course, remain stunning. World Cup matches passed off without any violence, and the close proximity of the venues to each other meant watching multiple matches in one day was achievable.

"Anyone living in the country, Qatari residents, anyone who visited, it was a really special time because we lived it," said Abbassi. "We were really proud to see the country managed to deliver the amazing, astonish the world and show everybody our culture, our beautiful country, our hospitality, our stadiums, our food, everything."

Qatar undeniably put on an impressive show. But the human cost casts a long shadow.

play5:16

Olley: FIFA has absolved itself of any post-tournament responsibility

James Olley says that lack of progress made in Qatar since the games is partly because of FIFA not holding it accountable.

The off-field legacy

In conversations with ESPN, multiple human rights campaigners stated a belief that the December 2010 decision to award Qatar hosting rights for the World Cup either did not consider or totally ignored clear human rights issues in the country.

It is not the first tournament to provoke controversy and criticism. At the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government was accused of moving some of the country's poorest people living in favelas to different locations. In Russia four years later, there were questions over President Vladimir Putin's political motives for staging the tournament, with Human Rights Watch suggesting he aimed to "sportswash his rule...[and] legitimise it by hosting a sporting mega-event."

Qatar had a little less than 12 years to prepare, but FIFA did not even create its own human rights policy until 2017. Yet, sources in Qatar insist there are many who desire change in the country. Others believe Western media is biased against the Middle East or Qatar specifically.

In defending Qatar, Infantino pointed to the history of atrocities in Europe. "For what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people," said the Italian. And there is something in that. Scrutiny should never be selective. But whataboutery is not a satisfactory answer.

Perhaps the starting point is the data. There has to be something fundamentally wrong when so many parties accept that migrant workers who came to Qatar to work on the construction of World Cup stadiums and infrastructure died, but nobody agrees on the number.

Human Rights Watch notes Qatari government data from 2010-19 that states all deaths of non-Qataris in any setting was 15,021. Qatar stopped publishing this data beyond that date. The Guardian's reporting put the number of dead between 2010 and "up until the final few months of 2020" at 6,500, but this estimation is confined to workers from five South Asian countries: India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Guardian was also not able to verify occupation or place of work for the deceased.

The Supreme Committee has only ever acknowledged three deaths directly connected to construction of the stadiums, with 37 deaths attributed to other reasons. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) counts 50 deaths in 2020, with 506 severe injuries and a further 37,601 mild or moderate injuries.

There are many conflicting reports about the number of migrant workers who died during construction related to the 2022 World Cup. Warren Little/Getty Images

"The quality of data is not good enough yet," Max Tunon, head of the ILO's Qatar office, told ESPN. "A system for harmonising the collection and analysis of data is under development. Right now, the Qatari Ministries of Public Health, Labour and Interior all have their own way of defining what is an occupational injury and what is an occupational death."

Of that wider figure of 15,021, thousands of deaths have been attributed to cardiac arrest or natural causes. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several other campaign groups are handling thousands of cases in which families of dead migrant workers believe the cause of death has been deliberately misclassified to avoid any acknowledgement of wrongdoing and resulting compensation.

"We may never know the true number, as it is impossible to retroactively investigate deaths that occurred over the past decade" said Tunon. "Going forward, there needs to be more investigations into deaths which may in fact be work related.

"If a worker dies in his sleep and is otherwise seemingly healthy, there should be an investigation to look into the conditions of work. But it would be very difficult to go back and retroactively do it. If a certificate states natural or cardiac arrest as cause of death, it would be very difficult to go back 10 years and determine that in fact the death was work-related."

So if those cases cannot be definitively solved, is there any way for those families to get compensation? "I don't think so," said Tunon.

E60 INVESTIGATES

"Qatar's World Cup," stream anytime on ESPN+.

As a United Nations agency with a mandate to advance social and economic justice, the ILO opened a Doha office in 2018 and is charged with the responsibility of enabling Qatar to make and maintain labour reforms. And there have been reforms.

The kafala system was a widely accepted practice in Qatar and throughout the Persian Gulf region. Flush with opportunities because of their oil and gas reserves combined with the mammoth construction task created by the World Cup, migrant workers flooded into Qatar, and each one required a sponsor to enter the country. They were not allowed to change jobs without a no objection certificate (NOC) or leave Qatar without an exit permit from their sponsor. Workers seeking these opportunities would often rely on recruitment agents to secure these jobs at great cost, creating a debt they would have to pay off while sending back money to support family. The 2017 reforms agreed between Qatar and the ILO saw the government requirement for the NOC removed, and migrants now do not need an exit permit to leave.

There is now a minimum wage, introduced in 2017, of 1000 Qatari riyals ($275) per month. The employer also has to allocate 500 QR ($137) per month for accommodation and 300 QR ($82) for food. The use of the Hayya card system has been extended to families of workers so they can visit loved ones. New heat protection laws have been introduced meaning there is now no outdoor construction work between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from June 1 to Sept. 15. The ILO says government data suggests 669,198 people changed jobs successfully between September 2020 and October 2023, while 364,053 applications were rejected.

However, where these reforms constitute progress in principle, the reality is very different. Amnesty International stated last week that "remedy and justice for hundreds of thousands of workers who suffered abuses linked to the tournament remain elusive," adding that "from illegal recruitment fees to unpaid wages, migrant workers lost their money, health and even their lives while FIFA and Qatar tried to deflect and deny responsibility." There is a huge backlog in the labour courts as workers fight wage theft with companies accused of withholding some or all of their wages. Cases can take years, and in the meantime, without any pay, many workers simply give up and go home.

Various human rights campaigners told ESPN that employers have been known to confiscate workers' passports and bank cards. There are many more workers fearful of reporting issues because of retaliation from their employer. Human Rights Watch and FairSquare told ESPN that companies rush to file absconding charges -- which can lead to arrest and deportation -- with minimal evidence.

Many migrant workers in Qatar still face poor treatment in Qatar even after labour reforms brought in for the World Cup. Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

ESPN spoke with two migrant workers, both from Nepal, who are named here as "Worker A" and "Worker B" to protect their anonymity. 'Worker A' has a job in construction as a safety supervisor, with a son and daughter back in Nepal. He said: "We filed a case with the labour department, they handed the case to the Supreme Court. They paid 50% of our money. The remaining money we still don't have.

"The case took two years. I had some colleagues, I stayed with them. Some people paid my house rent, food. It was very difficult. I have to support my family and for two years I cannot."

Worker B is a retail department manager with a mother, wife and daughter to support. He said the process of changing jobs still effectively requires an NOC because "there is a notice process where your current sponsor has to approve your process of leaving by getting a stamp and a signature from their sponsor or company they work for." He outlines further issues with the payment of overtime -- which is often delayed or reduced unfairly -- and issues of discrimination.

"There is a difference in the salaries. I hold the position of department manager. There is another department manager from the UK who is getting almost double the salary of mine. We have similar responsibilities. If you hold any of the Arab passports, the salary is different. The payment is based on the passport and not the job description.

"And there is discrimination in the physical work. When managers are dividing tasks, people from India, Philippines or Nepal, they are the ones asked to perform the physical tasks."

Multiple sources in Qatar speak of ongoing resistance to the kafala reforms, poor implementation of the changes and the Ministry of Labour's (MoL) failure to offer a clear and swift path to justice. The Supreme Committee is now down to minimal staff numbers while Sheikha Najwa Al Thani -- from the country's ruling family -- has left her role there to join the MoL. Sources say the MoL has undergone a restructuring with new safety and health departments created, but frustrations continue.

A spokesperson for the Supreme Committee told ESPN: "Since construction began on FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 infrastructure in 2014, the SC's commitment to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast.

"Our commitment to workers' welfare has resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, healthcare provision, and reimbursements of illegal recruitment fees to workers.

"The SC contractually obliges our contractors to maintain Workmen's Compensation and Life Insurance in respect of work-related accidents. In the case of non-work-related-deaths, the SC ensures our contractors pay final salaries, end of service benefits -- as per Qatari law -- within three weeks, working with the relevant embassies to expedite payment.

"Furthermore, we have worked with contractors to reimburse over $28.5m (of which $23m has been reimbursed to date) of recruitment fees to 50,000 workers. We also established the first Workers' Forums in Qatar, which are a model that is now being rolled our nationally, with 72 joint committees giving a voice to 50,000 employees."

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The MoL declined repeated requests for an interview, but Qatar's International Media Office told ESPN: "The commitment to strengthen Qatar's labour system and safeguard workers' rights was never an initiative tied to the World Cup and was always intended to continue long after the tournament ended. The positive impact of Qatar's labour reforms is evident for all to see: the region's first non-discriminatory minimum wage, 97% of all salaries protected through the Wage Protection System, the removal of barriers to change jobs, a simplified complaints mechanism and easier access to justice, stricter enforcement including a crackdown on the payment of illegal recruitment fees, increased awareness of workers' rights, region-leading health and safety standards on-site and in accommodations, and regular health screenings to identify underlying conditions.

"In October 2018, the Workers' Support and Insurance Fund was established with the aim of securing workers' financial payments awarded by Labour Dispute Settlement Committees when a company becomes insolvent and is unable to pay workers. To date, more than $630m (over 2.3bn QR) has been paid out to workers through the fund."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source with knowledge of the battle for union representation in Qatar said: "That figure may be true but given the backlog in the courts, imagine the true scale of the problem given the thousands and thousands of people still waiting for justice."

The WSIF and the ILO are discussing a proposal to hold an international conference on wage protection in Doha in 2024. The process for filing an absconding charge now requires more information from employers. But human rights campaigners argue the ILO has not done enough to help resolve these mounting problems, has published misleading government data masking the extent of the issues and failed to make sufficient progress in building capacity to process cases.

"Some people assume we are a non-governmental organisation," Tunon told ESPN. "We're not; we're an international organisation and the government is our constituent.

"Our job is to support our constituents in implementing national legislation in line with international labour standards. It is not our role to criticise the government or to provide cover for them. Our job is to provide technical assistance on the ground and call it as we see it. We see genuine commitment since we arrived in 2018 until now to work on these issues.

"If we start to try to impose everything without consideration of the national context, it is not going to be sustainable. You will get to the point where there is extreme pushback, and everything collapses. There will be more critical actors who say 'we tried but the international community will never be happy so let's just keep things as they were.'

"We are in a privileged position. On the one hand, we see cases from workers that highlight the range of challenges, including workers who have not been paid for several months. But on the other hand, we engage with the Government on a daily basis, and we see the progress being made. Progress is incremental but it shows us things are moving in the right direction and that's what motivates us."

play1:03

Olley: Nobody can explain what happened to migrant worker centre plans

James Olley says that nobody in Qatar was able to explain why a proposed migrant worker centre was never created.

FIFA and the human rights campaigners had been pushing for a migrant workers' centre in Doha prior to the tournament as a safe space for complainants to raise issues and have them processed effectively. It has not been built, and sources have told ESPN the Qatari government currently has no intention of doing so. One source involved in the discussions said talks never even got as far as identifying a possible site.

Infantino announced a "Labour Excellence Hub" at his World Cup closing news conference. Multiple sources involved in discussions to further labour reforms in Qatar told ESPN that Infantino surprised them with this announcement. No tangible progress has been made. Infantino also announced a FIFA Legacy Fund and invited countries to pay into it in return for a say in where the money would go. ESPN asked FIFA to clarify its position on the lack of a migrant workers' centre, offer details of how much had been paid out of the fund and where that money went. FIFA did not reply to these questions.

"There has been no compensation for the migrant worker families who lost relatives," said Worden. "We have cases where families of workers who died can show paperwork proving their loved ones died on a worksite and they should be compensated. The compensation would be a life-changing $25,000-$30,000 per family.

"But the Qataris say it's 'blood money' and they won't pay. The migrant workers' centre was always a big lie. They don't want it and too many other nations were willing to believe it would be set up despite no evidence to legitimise the World Cup going there.

"FIFA has hired consultants to prepare a report on a remedy for deaths. But it is not designed to lead to the families getting paid; it is designed to 'educate the leaders of FIFA.' So, shockingly, the only people who got compensation are actually highly paid consultants for FIFA on remedy."

FIFA did not address a specific question about the lack of compensation for migrant worker deaths but a spokesperson told ESPN: "The human rights & social responsibility sub-committee has undertaken to conduct an independent assessment on whether the steps FIFA has taken to date with regard to access to remedy of workers in the context of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 are in line with FIFA's human rights commitments and responsibilities under relevant international standards and whether additional steps would be recommended in view of further strengthening the tournament's legacy for migrant workers. This work of the sub-committee is currently ongoing."

Sources in Qatar suggest the total population has dropped from around 3 million during the tournament to around 2.2m now as many workers leave. Projects have slowed, despite the Formula 1 Grand Prix, Expo 2023 and the Asian Cup all taking place over the course of several months in 2023 and into 2024. The number of Qataris in the country stands at approximately 300,000, meaning the migrants total around 1.9m, and a resistance to avoid unionising that vast majority of the population effectively remains, especially if companies feel the squeeze over a lack of growth.

Worker B told ESPN: "Wage theft is increasing. The amount of unemployment is increasing because people are still here but the FIFA projects are over. Cases of worker problems are increasing. Now the international focus has been away from Qatar but the amount of cases are increasing day by day. This is the time we need more focus."

FIFA president Gianni Infantino was sat with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during the opening ceremony of the 2022 World Cup. Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The future

The Middle East will host another World Cup in 2034 after Saudi Arabia was confirmed as the sole bidder in an announcement that took many by surprise last month.

"Barely a year after the human rights catastrophes of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, FIFA has failed to learn the lesson that awarding multibillion-dollar events without due diligence and transparency can risk corruption and major human rights abuses," said Worden.

Saudi Arabia has a similar climate but more than six times the number of migrant workers, raising fears the abuses suffered in Qatar could be repeated. Furthermore, the country's human rights record appals campaigners who cite mass executions, repression of women's rights, torture and imprisonment of the regime's critics.

The infrastructure project at hand is daunting. FIFA's bidding documents say 14 stadiums are needed to host the 48-team tournament, and an estimated 13.4m migrant workers will be required in construction or other low-wage service sector jobs with few human rights protections, according to Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia does not even have a full train network linking the country's seven major cities. A source in Qatar suggests preliminary talks have taken place over spreading out the games beyond Saudi Arabia, although they added there were discussions about games at the 2022 World Cup being played in other countries, only for that idea to quickly fizzle out.

Sources have also told ESPN that some of the contractors, diplomats and infrastructure experts used in Qatar have been engaged by Saudi Arabia, while Qatar Airways is in dialogue about becoming one of the lead airline partners.

"We're very, very happy to see our brothers from Saudi Arabia hosting the biggest sporting event in the world," Abbassi told ESPN. "It makes us proud because we have been able to inspire Saudi Arabia or other countries to deliver such an event. Historically it never came to the region. It was very good to open that door for Saudi Arabia, as well for Morocco together with Spain and Portugal [the three nations co-hosting the 2030 World Cup.] We saw the World Cup 2022 as an Arab World Cup. A World Cup for the whole region. We see the same for 2034.

"I still believe that Qatar has been treated unfairly for the 12 years prior to the World Cup. For those who were lucky enough to come to the World Cup and to witness that Qatar is the way it is -- it is a beautiful country, with nice people. It is a modern, conservative country. Those people have seen that we have been treated unfairly. In a lot of eyes, there are double standards in the world media."

The Saudi Pro League has stolen Qatar's thunder in adopting a money-no-object approach to signings, including Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema. It was a methodology the Qataris followed in 2003 when each club was given $10m to sign a top star -- Romario, Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta were among the arrivals -- but Abbassi said: "At the QSL, we deliver high intensity competitive football entertainment. Thus, our main objective is not recognition. Our priorities are high-quality football, competitive balance and enhanced fan experience.

"If you want the world's attention, it makes sense to bring in the names and take the approach that brings you the attention as fast as possible.

"Maybe that was one of our objectives back in 2003 but the league's approach has always adapted to the ever-changing objectives. The objective this year is not that. It is to have the strongest possible league that we can have with fair value. I cannot tell you if something changes tomorrow or in five seasons but today this is our objective. There is no right and wrong."

As a football institution, FIFA cannot be expected to act as the ultimate arbiter in a country's political or social issues. But when awarding its biggest prize to any nation, it is inherently legitimising and endorsing the conditions in that country. This is why human rights campaigners fear it has failed to perform due process in awarding the 2034 tournament to Saudi Arabia.

What has become clear is there are plenty of lessons from the Qatar World Cup -- many that are still to be learned one year on.

    

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