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Qatar has offered fans free trips to the World Cup.  But there was a catch.

It’s a good enough offer for any football fan to stop and listen. Free flights for the World Cup. Free tickets for matches. Free accommodation during the tournament and even some pocket money.

But the offer comes with a catch.

The handpicked fans who accept this trip of a lifetime – funded by Qatar, the host country of this year’s World Cup – will be held to contracts that will oblige them to sing what they are told to. singing, watching what they say and, most controversially, pointing out social media posts made by other critical Qatari fans.

Yet despite these rules, hundreds of supporters signed up.

Invitations were sent out in late September and targeted some of the most connected and well-known fan leaders who support the 32 teams heading to the World Cup. A Dutch fan told broadcaster NOS that he had agreed to check other fans from the Netherlands. A board member of the American Outlaws, America’s largest fan group, agreed to participate and then helped sign up other members and others.

Fans from all FIFA confederations accepted the offer; dozens of people have already been to Qatar at least once for luxurious pre-World Cup tours. These too were paid by the tournament organizers.

Other fans, however, refused. The conditions attached to the offer, a French fan told Le Parisien, seemed to go too far. “Despite the appetizing side of the dish, I preferred to stay true to my values,” said Joseph Delage, a member of a large group of French supporters.

Qatar’s bid, part of a fan engagement program launched in 2020, is the first time a host nation has paid for groups of fans from all competing nations to attend the World Cup. But this is not the first time that Qatar has worked to fill stadiums with friendly voices; in 2019, migrant workers and school children were conscripted to fill empty seats at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.

In exchange for their World Cup benefits, this year’s fans – up to 50 from each country – will have to perform at a ceremony before Qatar open the tournament against Ecuador on November 20. Organizers have dedicated five minutes of this celebration to a fan-themed segment that will require recipients of Qatar’s bounty to perform a chant or song specific to their country, selected not by them but by the tournament organizers.

Representatives of Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, attempted this week to play down the explicit and implicit demands of the bid. “There is no obligation to promote or do anything,” said Ahsan Mansoor, the director of fan engagement for the 2022 World Cup, in an interview.

But closer examination of the terms of the relationship revealed that chosen supporters are encouraged to do just that, and also to amplify messages from organizers in support of the World Cup “by ‘liking’ and re-sharing third-party posts”. . At the same time, according to documents and contracts reviewed by The New York Times and authenticated by multiple fans, attendees are warned that although they are not being asked to be a ‘spokesperson’ for Qatar, ” that obviously wouldn’t be appropriate for you.” denigrate” the country or the tournament.

Fan leaders have also signed up to be on the lookout for such negativity in the comments on their posts; a clause in the code of conduct asks them to “report any offensive, degrading or abusive comments” to the organizers. Where possible, per the code, they should provide screenshots of all offending messages.

Those who break the rules are warned that they could be expelled from the program.

“At best they are volunteers for the World Cup and at worst they are spokespersons for the Supreme Committee,” said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization of supporters’ groups recognized by football fans. governing bodies of European football. body, UEFA. In the twelve years since Qatar won the World Cup, the country has struggled to shape and defend its national image amid corruption allegations, environmental and human rights concerns. ‘man.

The program to enroll fans as de facto ambassadors appears to have started in 2020, when the Supreme Committee reached out to National Federations around the world and asked to be put in touch with key fan groups to better understand the needs of visitors. Qatar, which has almost no tradition of hosting major sporting events and little domestic fan culture, was grappling with a complex task: how to create a tournament experience that would feel authentic to visiting fans, but also that would fit into the cultural norms of Qatar, a conservative Muslim nation.

Most federations have complied with this agreement. A US football spokesperson said it received a request from World Cup officials seeking to connect with fans and used it to open a dialogue with its own fan groups, but the federation had played no role in the selection of individual fans for the World Cup. Sectional travel. Other federations have provided contacts to groups of high profile supporters or, in the case of England, have committed themselves by placing a registration form in the name of the Qatar World Cup committee on the site. Website of his official fan club.

The FA said it learned about the scheme offering fans paid trips to the tournament from media reports.

“We were told this was an opportunity to engage with supporters from all competing nations to ensure that the voice of supporters was clearly heard in the planning for the World Cup, and that many international football associations football were approached,” the English Football Association said in a statement. The FA said that since posting a link to connect fans with Qatari organizers, “we have no longer been involved with the scheme, and have not seen the ‘code of conduct’ or any of the terms and conditions of involvement.”

Over the past two years, however, the program has slowly expanded. Fans were flown to Qatar for meetings with World Cup organizers eager to hear what their country’s supporters wanted from the tournament, then sent home armed with information on what to expect in Qatar. They were treated with first-class hospitality, according to members who took part in the trips, and many content posted on social media and posed for pictures promoting the program.

The pre-World Cup trips, each about a week long, centered on three key stages: the Arab Cup, a kind of test event for the World Cup; the official tournament draw in April; and most recently the opening of the Lusail Stadium, the biggest in Qatar and the site of the World Cup final in December. During their visits, the fan leaders were treated to experiences such as kayaking in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and dune bashing, a popular pastime in the Gulf in which sport utility vehicles up and down the sand dunes.

During a trip, the supporters’ leaders were invited to the sumptuous residence of a representative of the Qatari supporters. Inside, they were able to discover the Qatari’s impressive fleet of high-performance vehicles and his collection of signed shirts, including those of Diego Maradona, Pelé and Lionel Messi.

Some fans even got to meet David Beckham, one of the many pitchers Qatar have signed to promote this year’s World Cup. (A public relations firm, Portland Communications, was first involved in identifying and approaching fan groups in Europe.) Many fan leaders – and some journalists who took on similar trips – later gushed of their experiences in Qatar on social media.

“If you are an influencer supported or paid by a brand, you must disclose it,” said Evain, the representative of the European supporters group. “What we saw around the Arab Cup last year were European fan leaders not disclosing those links to the Supreme Committee.”

World Cup organizers defended the offer to fans as nothing more than recognition for the time they provided to help Qatar understand and prepare for a foreign influx unprecedented in its history.

“They have no formal or contractual association with the World Cup, and they are not its ambassadors,” said Mansoor, head of the fan program. All they are required to do, he said, is take their place at the opening ceremony.

nytimes sport

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