Why Big Business Can’t Get Enough of the World Cup, Scandal and All

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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