Fans paid to attend the Qatar World Cup experienced a rude shock after payments were stopped by authorities following a stream of bad publicity.
The Fan Leader Network is a Qatari program that has attracted controversy for paying supporters from around the globe to improve the image of the Middle East’s first FIFA World Cup.
The scheme offered travel, accommodation and a seat at the tournament’s opening ceremony and only asked fans to behave enthusiastically and post positive social media content online to generate a buzz.
Qatar came under the microscope over a number of alleged human rights abuses in the lead-up to the global event and pulled out all the stops financially to ensure the tournament’s success.
WORLD CUP LIVE: Follow all the latest results, highlights and reactions
Fan has the WILDEST World Cup adventure | 00:55
However, members recruited by the Fan Leader Network have revealed that payments were canceled just last week, with authorities blaming the media for exposing the questionable ploy.
“Due to the recent developments in the media, we are keen to protect our visiting fans from the erroneous misinformed statements regarding ‘fans receiving payment for the trip’,” the message, first reported by The Guardianread.
“Accordingly, the daily allowance will unfortunately no longer be issued. The allowance was intended as a small uplift on your own personal funds to assist with refreshments during your stay.”
France star Edouard Rowlandson said watching workers filling seats to make the arena appear more full was “bizarre”.
“But we prefer that to playing in front of nobody,” he said.
The suspected charade has already been highlighted by fans, with several comments made about groups of football fans singing around the grounds.
Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, criticized the scheme after news broke of supporters’ payments being cut.
“Who would have thought that an authoritarian regime with an appalling workers’ rights record was not to be trusted?” he said.
“I suppose that’s what you get for accepting to be paid the equivalent of a Qatari monthly minimum wage every four days for the pleasure of doing absolutely nothing.”
But FIFA president Gianni Infantino hit back at allegations of fake fans at the World Cup, labeling the criticism “pure racism”.
“I am reading that these people don’t look English so they can’t cheer for England, they look like Indians,” he said.
“What is that? Can someone who looks Indian not cheer for England, Spain or Germany?
“You know what it is? This is racism, pure racism. Everyone in the world has the right to cheer for who they want.”
Qatar’s campaign on the pitch isn’t off to a great start either.
The nation became the first home team to lose its opening World Cup match as Ecuador cruised to a 2-0 victory over the hosts on Monday morning, Australian time.
Asian champions Qatar enjoyed the backing of the 67,000-strong Al Bayt Stadium crowd, but could not follow a glitzy opening ceremony with a statement performance.
Ecuador thought it had made a dream start when Enner Valencia headed home in the third minute, only for the goal to be ruled out by the VAR system for an offside in the build-up.
It was only a brief reprieve for Qatar, with Valencia putting the South American side ahead from the penalty spot in the 16th minute before doubling its tally just after the half-hour mark.
Qatar improved in the second period, but by the end of the 90 minutes the buzz of the opening ceremony was a distant memory.
“Our nerves betrayed us, we started really badly,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez. “We were unable to string together four passes in a row.”
Qatar will likely need to avoid defeat in their second Group A match against Senegal on Friday just to prevent the ignominy of becoming only the second hosts, after South Africa in 2010, to be dumped out in the first round.