short memory | 

What did Pep Guardiola expect from Qatari cash when criticising a ‘crazy’ World Cup?

Pep Guardiola actively championed the notion of a Qatari World Cup, yet he is scratching his head over it now. Photo: Reuters© REUTERS


When Pep Guardiola gnashed his teeth this week about a “crazy World Cup”, he spoke on the assumption that his audience had short memories. For Manchester City’s manager is not exactly known as a strident critic of the tournament hosts. On the contrary, he has, over the past 20 years, been more unashamedly pro-Qatar than David Beckham on a visit to Doha’s downtown bazaar.

The allegiance dates back to Guardiola’s spell playing in the mid-2000s for Al-Ahli, the oldest club in Qatar. He was by no means alone in chasing the desert sun, with Xavi, Raul and Gabriel Batistuta all having enjoyed the same lavish sinecure.

Except his loyalty to the tiny emirate extended a touch further when, in 2010, he signed up to be an ambassador for its World Cup bid. “I have lived there, and because of the way they looked after me, I decided to accept,” he said at the time. “There is a great passion for football there, and it would help them to continue growing as a country.”

Leaving aside his dubious portrayal of Qatar as a hotbed of football fever – his two seasons there were marked less by the roar of the crowd than the rustle of tumbleweed – Guardiola’s history of promoting the Gulf state paints his new-found hostility to the World Cup in an awkward light.

​His primary objection to the event, if his irritable press conference this week is any gauge, is that it is taking place in deep midwinter, with the Premier League resuming just eight days after the final in Lusail. “We have a crazy World Cup and the players can’t rest,” he muttered.

Bear in mind, though, that when Guardiola was agitating for the World Cup to be awarded to Qatar, holding up an official candidature jersey for good measure, he was supporting the idea of it being staged in the middle of summer.

Temperatures in Doha in June and July can, as he must surely have recalled from his Al-Ahli days, exceed 45C (113F) regularly. Conditions threatened to be not merely uncomfortable for those competing and watching but downright dangerous. And yet Guardiola still trumpeted the concept, regardless. Now that truly is “crazy”.

You can understand why Guardiola is in a stroppy mood as this profoundly strange mid-season experiment heaves into view. At the very moment that his Erling Haaland-propelled attack starts purring, and just as a title duel with Arsenal begins in earnest, a six-week hiatus is enforced. Not only that, but any of his players who reach the final will have a derisory 10-day break before a bank holiday trip to Leeds. Their top-flight peers in Germany, by contrast, will enjoy more than a month off before domestic fixtures resume.

But this fiasco of a schedule has not arisen by some quirk of fate. It all stems from the astonishing decision to hand the World Cup to a spit of sand in the Persian Gulf, whose summers are hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. And this was a notion Guardiola actively championed. “If we keep taking the tournament to the same countries, we won’t live up to the ideals embodied in the name of the competition – the World Cup,” he declared in 2010.

These were not words uttered purely in the name of propaganda. If you look more deeply, Guardiola has long expressed a close personal affinity with Qatar. In 2011, when Barcelona abandoned a tradition of sponsor-free jerseys by signing a five-and-a-half-year deal with the Qatar Foundation, the club’s then manager said: “In the two years I lived in Qatar, my family and I received wonderful treatment. Qatar is opening up to the Western world. I think that we often don’t understand the Muslim world, nor they us. Qatar is the most open Muslim country and the closest to the Western democracies, but it needs time.”

It is a curious phenomenon, Guardiola’s world view. On the one hand, he is on record lauding Qatar – a place whose World Cup ambassador, Khalid Salman, likened homosexuality this week to “damage in the mind” – as “open”. On the other, he has characterised Spain, the historical oppressor of his native Catalonia, as “authoritarian”. Nobody is disputing the strength or sincerity of Guardiola’s feelings in supporting Catalan independence. But when he slaps labels on countries, he must surely accept that his moral judgments are being powerfully driven by self-interest.

When Guardiola talks today of a “crazy” World Cup, you might say that he is entitled to change his view after 12 years. Quite so. The problem, however, is that he is making these comments out of a purported concern for player welfare. Where was this same concern in 2010, when he was campaigning for the tournament to be held in the furnace-like heat of Qatari summer?

Yes, the subsequent move to winter dates is a colossal vexation for Premier League managers. But it is one for which Guardiola is partly responsible, having backed this absurd proposition as it was originally conceived.

He sowed the wind. Now, much to his consternation, he is reaping the whirlwind.

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