The latest disturbing development in the dysfunctional build-up to World Cup in Qatar is the news that the organisers are paying for groups of fans to attend in return for positive coverage on social media.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) have admitted to inviting groups of supporters to Doha as guests this month after a report by Dutch broadcaster NOS revealed Qatar has paid for the flights and hotels of about 50 Dutch fans.
Belgian and French fans have also reportedly been offered free trips.
If that was not strange enough, in return these fans have to sign a sinister-sounding ‘code of conduct’, encouraging them to post positive comments about the tournament on social media and to report “any offensive, degrading or abusive comments” by others to the SC, preferably with screenshots.
The measure reeks of desperation and feels deeply ominous. If Qatar wants to present an image of a welcoming, open country to the watching world, directly recruiting football fans to assist with its sportswashing and encouraging citizen espionage is not a great look.
The move also raises questions about the number of fans expected to travel to Doha this month.
There are many well-worn elements — the climate, the geography, the timing — that promise to make this World Cup more sterile and less enjoyable than any before it, and you now wonder if the tournament is going to be short of the most important element: the fans.
These finals are already missing the variety that usually makes World Cups so memorable and if there is also a deficit of passionate supporters in Doha, even those watching from home will not fail to detect the sense of sterility through their TV screens.
To be a successful tournament, Qatar desperately needs the colour of the Dutch, the passion of the South Americans and the noise of the Africans.
If fans are staying away, who can really blame them? With less than three weeks until the start of the tournament, is anyone truly excited for the finals? As domestic football continues to trudge towards a tired conclusion, the absence of World Cup fever is striking.
Certainly, most reporters seem to be increasingly feeling apprehensive about spending a month in a country which feels fundamentally ill-equipped to host the greatest show on earth.
Among the well-documented issues are the shortage of suitable accommodation, the lack of a restaurant or street-food culture and the £15 pints — if you can find a drink at all.
Underpinning all these trivial concerns is the sense that the tournament is fundamentally compromised given the sheer human cost of staging it and Qatar’s discriminative laws against women and same-sex couples, which have left many fans feeling unwelcome.
This grim backdrop raises an altogether bigger question: should you be able to separate the football from the wider context and enjoy the World Cup, warts and all?
FIFA and the SC are ultimately hoping that the appeal of their product will convince supporters (and reporters) to embrace the tournament and forget about the more than 6,500 migrant workers who have died.
This is part of the effectiveness and insidiousness of sportswashing, although judging by the SC’s decision to buy compliant fans, perhaps even the appeal of the football is not enough to convince supporters that this tournament is worth the pain.