SHEFFIELD, England — The birthplace of modern soccer is now an unassuming site: A couple of pitches with no stands for supporters, and a ramshackle indoor facility where damp rises on the walls and paint peels from the goalposts.
When Sheffield FC formed in this northern English steel city 160 years ago, the wealth awash in the modern game was unimaginable to the founders of the world’s first soccer club.
The symbol of how vastly soccer has changed is thousands of miles away in the Persian Gulf, where stadiums are springing up in the Qatari desert and tens of billions of dollars are invested in infrastructure to ensure a tiny nation can host the 32-team World Cup in 2022.
But Olive Grove, where the first rules of the modern game were conceived by Sheffield FC’s founders, was the latest stop this week for Qatar World Cup leader Hassan Al Thawadi on a mission to convince the global football community that his country remains a worthy host of the FIFA showpiece.
Seven years after the controversial vote and five years until kickoff, doubts linger about Qatar’s suitability and right to host the Middle East’s first World Cup.
“I believe we will always be in campaign mode,” al Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, said at the self-styled “Home of Football” in an interview with The Associated Press. “Most host nations or host cities suffered from criticism.”
Perhaps, but none on the scale faced by Qatar, which was unprepared for the sharp scrutiny that followed victory in the secret ballot that took the game’s biggest showcase to the smallest country yet.
The greatest threat to Qatar’s hosting status initially came from corruption investigators, who were troubled by some of the bid conduct but ultimately found there was no improper activity that swayed the vote.
Censure came from labor watchdogs who believed a form of modern slavery formed the backbone of World Cup construction, and Qatar was compelled to safeguard rights and conditions for migrant workers.
While progress has been made in a region unaccustomed to providing such protections, Qatar still faces demands to be more transparent about the cause of worker deaths and to eradicate exploitative practices like the “kafala” sponsorship system which binds workers to their employer.
“The World Cup is a catalyst and an engine for accelerated reforms,” al Thawadi said.
Now more powerful forces are at play threatening the World Cup: Four Arab countries have severed diplomatic ties and placed Qatar under a blockade since June in a move claimed to stop the natural-gas-rich country from supporting terrorism — charges denied by al Thawadi.
“For whoever may want to bring this World Cup into a political debate, that is an action that they are doing unilaterally,” he said.
However sure al Thawadi is, the World Cup will be played as scheduled from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 2022 — contentiously chosen by FIFA to avoid the fierce summer heat in the usual June-July slot — and he is clearly troubled by attempts to undermine the tournament.
A day after speaking to The AP in Sheffield, al Thawadi ducked out of the royal box at Wembley Stadium in London just before watching England play Germany to launch a broadside against what he perceives as efforts by Qatar’s regional rivals to bring down the World Cup.
Dubai’s security chief has already said the only way to end “Qatar’s crisis” was to give up the event, though he later said he was referring to the financial impact of hosting. An Emirati minister followed up by tweeting that Qatar’s hosting of the tournament should “include a repudiation of policies supporting extremism & terrorism.”
Lobbying firms backed by the nations opposing Doha have increasingly targeted the World Cup, while Twitter has been promoting anonymous paid posts attacking Qatar’s fitness as a tournament host, citing corruption allegations and worker abuses.
“We refuse to have this World Cup used as political pawn or a political tool because we believe in separating politics from sports ... and using sports as a means of resolving conflict,” al Thawadi said in the Wembley library. “I hope that the blockading nations see reason to be able to participate and join for the sake of the region benefiting out of this World Cup.”
The crisis has exposed the scale of risks associated with taking the World Cup to a region in flux. Stadium costs are rising after Qatar was forced to find alternative routes to import building materials, and security concerns linger.
“You can’t always prepare for a specific incident, but you can always prepare with contingency plans and be ready with a very resourceful and very quick and effective reactionary mindset as well,” al Thawadi said. “As soon as the blockade occurred, we were able to put Plan B and Plan C quickly in place and address some of the concerns and challenges that the blockade caused.”
Originally pitched to FIFA voters as a World Cup to benefit the Middle East, the idealism appears to have been sunk. The vision could potentially be revived by sharing games with neighbors, a proposition floated externally during the bid and still perceived as an objective in the region.
“Qatar has always been open to dialogue,” al Thawadi said. “It’s always been open and it’s always supported our brother nations, to the extent that if (sharing the World Cup) was the ultimate goal, all that would have required was a simple conversation.”
For now, England is where al Thawadi has come to speak to shore up support for his World Cup project.
An association with the trailblazing Sheffield FC, which plays eight divisions below the Premier League, might seem tenuous. But al Thawadi studied law at the University of Sheffield and this week he returned after 16 years to finally collect his graduation certificate during a brief presentation.
Sheffield FC sought Qatar’s assistance because it was fighting for its future and being overlooked in a country that hosts the world’s richest soccer league. It started in 2009 while al Thawadi was canvassing for FIFA votes in South Africa and led in 2015 to 100,000 pounds (then $153,000) being invested by al Thawadi to help the women’s team.
Now al Thawadi is trying to spur investment from across the English game to allow Sheffield FC to leave its base on the outskirts of the city and build a 6,000-seat venue and museum at its spiritual home at Olive Grove.
“Too often the money takes the lead with Paris Saint-Germain and Neymar,” Sheffield FC Chairman Richard Tims said, discussing wealth in the modern game that saw the Brazil forward bought by the Qatar-owned French club for a world record 222 million euros in August. “This project is the other end of the game.”
Clubs are being asked to donate a sum corresponding with their foundation year, and it started with Premier League champion Chelsea agreeing to hand over 1,905 pounds at a low-key event inside the rundown sports hall at Olive Grove.
Tims flattered his guests, proclaiming: “The new pioneers of football are Qatar.” Al Thawadi then sought to assure the small group of dignitaries that the backing for Sheffield FC is a sign of Qatar’s commitment to the wider game. It is not, Al Thawadi maintained in a later interview, about latching on to Sheffield FC to add a shiny veneer to Qatar’s battered image.
“Sheffield FC represents the start of football,” he said, “but more importantly represents playing football for the love of the game.”
Qatar, though, appears locked into a perpetual struggle, requiring charm offensives like the trip to England to protect its status as 2022 hosts.
“If it means we have to continue every day validating our right to host this World Cup,” Al Thawadi said, “so be it.”