Tim Cahill has done a lot of talking these past few weeks. He has pumped up Socceroos players, pressed the flesh at Fifa events and maintained his relationship with Qatar’s World Cup officials.
Seemingly, the only people to whom he has not spoken is the media. When Cahill was named as Australia’s “head of delegation” on 15 November, the not-unreasonable assumption was that he would have something to say. The caveat, of course, is that making yourself available to say things also opens you up to squirmy questions about who you work for and why.
It has been almost three years since Cahill joined Samuel Eto’o, Xavi and Cafu in becoming an ambassador for this hugely controversial World Cup. At the time, the Socceroos great was criticised but since then the scrutiny has, in relative terms, been sparse.
Even now he is protected from the glare, in large part thanks to the global censure directed at his higher-profile counterpart David Beckham, another former player being paid handsomely by the Gulf state, and whose sheen of celebrity has glossed over human rights issues.
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But he must have known that, at some point during the tournament, the queries would come and it would be prudent to prepare some kind of answer. If he has one, nobody knows what it is, because he did not speak. By the time the bulk of Australia’s media landed in Doha three weeks ago, SBS journalist Ben Lewis had already been granted and conducted a brief interview with Cahill. It was brief because Cahill, with the help of a PR officer, shut down a question about the Socceroos’ collective protest against the “suffering” of migrant workers and safety of LGBTI+ people. He walked away without a word. Without even a cursory response or a no comment, just a look of indignation and a turn on his heels.
Afterwards, Lewis was assured Cahill was not avoiding the issue and would willingly answer questions later in the week. Several days later, Football Australia – who was not in control of the 42-year-old’s schedule or media commitments – managed to organise a press conference with Cahill. That was cancelled on short notice due to a schedule clash and never eventuated, despite repeated requests right up until Sunday afternoon.
Members of the media were told he did not want to divert attention away from the team, an explanation that feels at odds with the selfie video Cahill had distributed on his behalf the day after Australia’s landmark win over Denmark. Guardian Australia received the video unsolicited via an email from Qatar 2022’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the backer of his lucrative ambassadorship. It was also shared with other journalists.
Over the course of those three weeks on the ground, Australian media were offered the opportunity to speak with almost every member of the Socceroos squad and coaching staff, along with Football Australia’s chief executive, James Johnson, and the federal minister for sport, Anika Wells. Cahill, while silent, was omnipresent, on the pitch at training at the Aspire Academy and in the dressing room before and during games.
And this is the point which complicates the situation. The Socceroos, who qualified only five months before their opening match, would not have secured residence at the world-class Aspire if it were not for Cahill’s role as its chief sports officer. The use of the genuinely impressive facility, albeit one funded by the state and at the centre of Qatar’s Football Dreams project, contributed to Australia’s unprecedented success during the tournament. Its recovery resources are unmatched. Aspetar, the world-renowned orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital, is next door and analysed every inch of the players’ bodies to determine their fitness or otherwise before each match.
With all of this in mind, it is difficult to form an argument that FA should not have accepted this opportunity and capitalised on the high-performance advantages it offers. On top of this, Cahill has clearly been a supportive figure during the campaign and a source of motivation for the players, many of whom look up to him. The squad were here to play football, and he undoubtedly aided that cause.
Cahill, who lives in Doha, said in 2020 that his Qatar 2022 ambassadorship was “a natural progression for me”. His own website states that part of his role is to “promote various activities and legacy programmes” run by the Supreme Committee, including workers’ welfare. Had he spoken, he may have chosen to draw on one of the points the made in the Socceroos’ nuanced video, which acknowledged some improvements in the country, including the dismantling of the kafala system and improved working conditions and a minimum wage (though the Socceroos also said more must be done).
Unfortunately, we do not know what he thinks about any of it. Nor do we know if he has spoken about the issue with the Socceroos, who feel strongly about their cause. This piece would have benefited considerably from Cahill’s input – it is his right to state his own beliefs for the public record. All we know is that he did not entertain the question before the tournament and did not engage thereafter.