Gary Neville asks right questions of Qatar but gets no nearer answers we need

Barney Ronay

“I will be able to get away with anything. The most slippery, unthinkable, Machiavellian things” – Ricardo Teixeira, Fifa executive, World Cup 2022 bid committee member, July 2011.

“Which Conmebol officials were to receive money for their votes in connection with the Qatar [World Cup] selection?

“Ricardo Teixeira, Nicolás Leoz and Julio Grondona,” – witness in Fifa corruption trial, quoted in Fifa statement on Teixeira, November 2019.

Nobody agrees about anything in football, but almost everyone agrees on Gary Neville. Here is a pundit so persuasive that in his better moments he seems to push the limits of how good you can actually be as a man standing next to a lighted box talking about football. It is easy to forget that until recently TV football had remained pretty much unchanged ever since Jimmy Hill first went out touring the grounds in his light aircraft, beard retouched with mascara, minting the tone and texture of this new discourse.

Related: How the 2022 World Cup is emerging from the desert of Qatar

Neville has been key in helping to transform this. At first he was so intense, so startlingly well-prepped that it seemed unsustainable. There was a bump in the road when he took that sabbatical in management. But he kept going, got better, filtered the experience into his analysis. Best of all Neville is fearless: burdened with a conscience, but also answerable to it. And now he’s been to the Gulf and been danced around a little by people who know how to play a slightly harder game than this. Gary Neville in Qatar was first shown in December, two years to the day before the World Cup final. This week it entered a period of heavy rotation on Sky Sports.

It’s a really good, illuminating film. Neville gets amazing access. Doha is shot in a way that captures its eerie beauty, like a comic book depiction of the future, the capital of Mars in the year 2125. The film asks all the right questions. But it is at the same time an act of semi-journalism. The film aims to cover the basics – stadium, camel ride, stroll through a souk in a polo shirt – but also to shed light in darker places. From the start we see cuts of Gary standing in a dank brick archway looking pale and worried and musing aloud on human rights and the like.

“Nothing’s off boundaries, we have to ask the toughest questions,” he declares on the ground in Qatar. At which point he heads off to a meeting with Nasser al-Khater, Qatar 2022’s CEO, who announces that there is “not a shred of evidence” of corruption around the awarding of his World Cup. All such allegations are “bias”. “People should really be ashamed of themselves,” Khater concludes sadly.

Indeed. But which ones? Certainly the suggestion there is no hint of anything linking Qatar to corruption is incorrect. For a start 14 of 22 Fifa ExCo members involved in the Qatar vote have since been banned or discredited for dubious practices. More simply there’s the witness evidence to a New York court in 2017 alleging that Ricardo Teixeira, the godfather of footballing corruption, was one of three Fifa ExCo members to take $1m in return for a vote for Qatar 2022. This is, quite literally, evidence.

Teixeira was banned for TV rights bribery in November. It went almost unremarked at the time, but Fifa’s decision also refers, rather startlingly, to the court transcript on Qatar, thereby recognising in its official documents the allegation someone out there successfully bribed Fifa executives to secure the 2022 World Cup.

Ricardo Teixeira, the godfather of footballing corruption. Photograph: Eraldo Peres/AP

Qatar rigorously denies this. Fifa also denies it, oddly given the text of its own decision. Some might call this a smoking gun, others a fully-loaded pistol of truth. Gary lets it pass. The no-shred-of-corruption theory stands essentially unchallenged. “Controversy is going to rage on,” he shrugs and changes the subject

The other painful note – or as Neville calls it “the most damaging accusation” – is the question of death. Specifically the deaths of migrant World Cup workers. How many have there been so far, Neville asks Hassan Al-Thawadi, secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy. “Three” is the answer.

Some figures project 4,000 semi-captive heat-stricken workers will die by the end of this project. This is hotly disputed.

There are hundreds of migrant manual worker deaths every year in Qatar, attributed to cardiovascular causes or “natural death”. Leading scientists has suggested the cause is probably heatstroke. Gary, though, is a climate death sceptic. “Do we believe that on those sites workers are dying and they’re hiding it?” he asks. “I find that hard to believe” OK. Three deaths it is then.

There is a gripping section where Neville seems deeply moved by conditions in one of the workers’ shelters. Cultural issues, native conservatism and “the price of a pint” are all raised. Plus of course it’s not meant to be Panorama. Gary in Qatar is part of that trend for roving celebrity journalism: Banksy On Boko Haram, Eamonn Holmes in Hitler’s Bunker, Monkey Tennis with Chris Eubank, and so on. But there is a wider point here.

Big sport, like every other part of life, feels increasingly like a series of interlocking power structures, a web of shared interests that remains opaque and immovable. Neville’s film does tell us one thing. The most slippery, unthinkable, machiavellian things may well have happened here, as they may at every global sporting beano: London, Moscow and all points included. The chance of getting any closer to the truth feels as remote as ever.