As tournament director of Euro 2024, I am meeting many people from the huge German football base. They are children in jerseys with whom I take selfies, youth coaches who teach rules to their players, presidents of small clubs who have been volunteers for decades. They all love the lightness of football, know its educational power, appreciate its importance to our community.
When the conversation turns to Qatar, however, their tone becomes serious. Many consider missing a World Cup voluntarily for the first time in their lives. In the past, a World Cup was a folk festival, for children a football initiation for life. Today, some amateur clubs think about leaving the beer tables and the screen in the storeroom.
What this makes clear to me again is that giving the World Cup to Qatar was a mistake. It doesn’t belong there.
Even the Fifa procedure was problematic. It was unusual that two tournaments were awarded simultaneously for the first time. Qatar and Russia won the bids, although there was stronger competition. The match schedule in Qatar had to be postponed from summer to winter. The heat in the desert had not been considered at first, although an internal Fifa report had warned against it and also pointed out other deficits of the Qatari bid.
Other reasons must have been decisive in December 2010. Many of Fifa’s 24 elected officials were later banned, punished or legally prosecuted; two had been suspended before the election.
Another lesson from Qatar: in future, human rights must become an indispensable criterion at major sporting events. Qatar has made progress in response to criticism from fans and research by the media by ratifying some agreements under international law and introducing the minimum wage. But gay people are still criminalised, women do not have the same rights as men and freedom of the press and freedom of expression are restricted.
The conditions for the migrant workers, thanks to whom the World Cup is possible, have been devastating. Their deaths were accepted and not investigated, their families are not adequately compensated. This is what the human rights experts from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation say. Qatar has admitted abuses.
According to Forbes, the World Cup will cost at least $150bn (£128bn), which is about 10 times more than the World Cup in Russia, the previous most expensive. In a country the size of Kosovo and with fewer inhabitants than Berlin, there are eight ultra-modern, air-conditioned stadiums.
There is no fan culture that could benefit from this. Often, not even a thousand spectators come to games in the Qatari professional league. Football is not a popular amateur sport in Qatar and there is practically no opportunity for girls to play. This is also understood as the lack of sustainability of a football tournament.
The approach of holding a World Cup in a new region is the right one. In 2010, it was held in Africa for the first time. Before that, I had travelled to South Africa, still a player at the time, to get to know the host country and the circumstances in which I would be playing. A World Cup could also have made a positive contribution to football culture in the Middle East, because there are countries with football traditions there.
Or if you extend the thought to the entire Arabic-speaking world: Morocco and Algeria. West Germany played Morocco at the 1970 World Cup and lost to Algeria at the 1982 World Cup. Before winning the title in 2014, we had to go to extra time against Algeria in the last 16; the game in Porto Alegre felt like an away game, so many Algerian fans had travelled there. Qatar have never qualified for a World Cup.
Nevertheless, this small country won the bid at the first attempt. Many fans from all over the world will have to stop over in neighbouring countries and travel to and from matches. In the stadiums there will be paid influencers to create the atmosphere and PR on social media. This atmosphere does not interest me as a football fan. I would only have flown to Qatar if my job as tournament director required it. Since this is not the case, I am staying at home.
In some countries, teams have been asked to boycott the tournament. That’s something everyone has to decide for themselves. I think it’s right that Germany are taking part and I would also be happy if we became world champions. Qatar is an economic partner and energy supplier to the west, Germany maintains diplomatic relations with Qatar and the decision lies 12 years back.
Everyone has to answer for themselves whether they watch the games on television. I will: the national team is important. The 2024 European Championship in Germany depends on their performance. If the tournament is to be a success, the team have to perform better in Qatar than at the previous two tournaments.
Even though the final is in Doha, I will switch on the TV. In principle, a World Cup is a great event. In sporting terms, a tournament of countries is more unpredictable, with more teams having a chance of winning the title than in the Champions League and many national leagues, where competition is almost frozen. The conditions in Qatar could favour surprises. The rhythm is different, the World Cup takes place in the middle of the season, the teams have almost no preparation.
It is possible South America will make a comeback. Maybe an African country will beat a major football nation or a small European country will advance to the final, as Croatia did in 2018. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will retire from the global stage. A new star may be born.
It doesn’t have to be a contradiction to find the political background of the World Cup questionable and still celebrate a festival. It is not a betrayal of our values to meet friends for a beer and talk boisterously about football and this and that. Another question is whether this World Cup will be the big one. It’s winter in Europe and human rights are not non-negotiable in the host country.
But it is a human need to come together. A World Cup is also a community experience among like-minded people. In the special circumstances Europe finds itself, it can strengthen solidarity and resilience.