Here’s a run-down on what happened and what I intended. I was invited to the conference Aspire4Sport, along with other journalists from several countries. I was invited chiefly because I lived and worked in Qatar in 2009. The idea was that I could see for myself how the 2022 project was developing. That’s it really. It was a normal business-world invitation. No strings attached. My record suggests that I would honour that. The 2022 project is certainly developing, and there are various interesting aspects to be considered – architectural, urban and sports-wise. I wasn’t sent there to report on humans rights. But I didn’t ignore them. I set out by saying that it’s hard to write about Qatar without annoying someone. Quod erat demonstrandum. There are various points in the article where I criticise the Qataris, and even the conference itself, with its corporate-speak and gloss. I also say that it’s wrong to award World Cups to already rich countries, and suggest that 2026 should be given to a poor one, so as to help it build infrastructure with the investment. I say that the WC was given to Qatar because it would become an outsourcing fest. It has. I also criticise the Qataris for looking the other way. But I add that as educated guys the upper echelons in their society reacted. At no point do I say that they have ‘solved’ the human rights issue. My point about Harvard was to indicate that these people are not tent-dwelling nomads. That’s all. When I worked there in 2009 it was very clear that a certain class worker was treated poorly. I knew about this long before it hit the news. It’s scandalous practice, largely carried out by middle-men countries, but it wasn’t my writing remit, on a sports web-page. There seems to be a problem at the moment for anyone who tries to step out from the Qatar-bashing norm. A single positive thing and it’s seen as pay-back for the freebie. Other journalists have suffered similar problems. It’s dangerous. If we only see the Qataris as one-dimensional bad-guys, then a lot of things will be missed. We need to get them to clean up their act. There were certain things I was impressed with and I felt it was right to report that. If people have a problem with that it ain't my fault. ESPN pulled it because I assume they were caught by the strength of the reaction. I don’t know why they pulled it. Ask them. Obviously, they approved it beforehand. I don’t think I deserve this invective. I’m not being defensive. I stick by the article. Thanks.
That was, edited for readibility out of a Twitter context but otherwise verbatim, Phil Ball's defense for "Inside Doha: Give Qatar a Chance to Shine," which you may read here. Ball is, or rather was, a respected soccer journalist and writer, and this article was very very very briefly up on ESPN's website. Reaction was unkind.
I recently had to apologize for badly bungling my own Qatar article. Furthermore, a few years ago I was offered a junket to a World Cup host. I am someone who has walked a few meters in Ball's shoes. I think I have a perspective on this that a lot of people don't. I know what Ball is going through.
He deserves it.
It would be cheap and smarmy of me to go through his defense, cherry-pick the worst parts of it and trash it with a sense of moral superiority. But it would also be redundant - you read it for yourself, and you're a functioning human being. The English language has a rich variety of words to describe someone who, to pick but one tempting example, begs off talking about human rights because he's writing a sports post, then waxes rhapsodic about architecture and conference presentations.
It's not merely a scummy excuse, but a foolish one. I was not offered a seat on this plane, and thus missed a chance to meet THE Shaquille O'Neal. I like to think, however, if Aspire had been so unwise, I would have said yes - provided I could bring Zahir Belounis home with me as a souvenir.
Ball didn't mention Belounis - probably because of space considerations. He had to include a picture of himself with Alan Shearer, and no-holds-barred, unvarnished insight such as:
[Tourists are] going to be looking at the country's whiz-bang urban aesthetic, because it is amazing.
Oh, and a few weeks without booze would do us some good. Ball's Wikipedia page, by the way, omits his medical degree.
As has been pointed out, this doesn't really speak too highly of Qatari public relations. Paying for an article that says you didn't need to pay for the World Cup had an entirely predictable outcome.
Onto happier subjects. We're guaranteed that history will be made at MLS Cup!
It's true! The winner will have achieved the unprecedented feat of winning MLS Cups from different conferences!
It's true! Kansas City won MLS Cup in 2000 from the Western Conference - now they're in the East. Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake won MLS Cup in 2009. They were and are in the Western Conference - but in 2009, they qualified from the Eastern bracket, and were crowned Eastern Conference champions!
This could have happened before. Chicago and Houston have so far had two chances each to win while representing multiple conferences, but couldn't convert. Barring another change in conference alignment or playoff format, Colorado is the only other team that can achieve this feat. It hasn't been done yet - but it will be on December 7!
Which is two long weeks away. So, I'm trying to pace myself. I don't want to give away all this good stuff I got all at once!
Anyway, speaking of Chicago, anyone know what makes them stand out?
That's right! The only team to have gone to MLS Cup after THREE different conference titles! They won in 1998 representing the West, they were in the now-defunct Central in 2000, and won the East in 2003.
But they won't be the first team to actually win twice for two different conferences - that will be either Kansas City or Salt Lake. One of those two teams will go down in history as the Baltimore Colts of MLS. Be phenomenal or be forgotten!!