How Russian business made money on Qatari football
In December 2022, the FIFA World Cup ended in Qatar. Although the Russian team was not allowed to compete, Russian-speaking companies played an important role in organizing the championship and activities for its sponsors.
They provided the event with furniture, turnstiles, catering, marketing and transport services. Forbes tells how technology solutions studio in show business Sila Sveta, furniture manufacturer Mr.Doors, Pitch Sports creative studio and other Russian companies ended up at the 2022 World Cup.
From November 20 to December 18, 2022, the FIFA World Cup was held in Qatar. Russia, which hosted the championship in 2018, was not allowed to compete. But Russians and Russian companies worked as contractors in Qatar, says Alexei Sorokin, former general director of the organizing committee for the preparation and holding of the 2018 World Cup. In 2022, he advised the organizers of the championship in Qatar on strategic issues.
According to Sorokin, the Qatari side followed the work of the Russian organizing team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. And upon completion, she invited many employees to work under contract with the Qatar High Committee for Delivery and Heritage (SC) and the Qatar 2022 organization established by the High Committee and FIFA. These organizations were responsible for holding the championship in Qatar, says Sorokin. The first prepared the infrastructure (stadiums, airport, transport system, hotels), and the second – the tournament itself.
In total, about 350 Russians worked in the organizations responsible for hosting the 2022 World Cup and in contractor companies, Sorokin estimates. At the same time, according to him, the number of Russians did not exceed the number of specialists from other countries: “An international team worked at the championship: there were Greeks, British, Spaniards, French, and Australians.”
A Forbes source close to the organizing committee of the championship noted that many Russian companies wanted to be among the contractors, but preference was often given to others. The problem was not “the abolition of Russia on the global stage”, he argues: “Preference was given to those who had a stable presence [в Катаре]. Although in other countries it usually doesn’t matter.”
Despite this, interactive media studio Sila Sveta, furniture manufacturer Mr.Doors and a number of other companies were able to take part in the organization of the World Cup 2022, Forbes learned. How did they get into the tournament and how much could they earn?
“The only thing Russians can do to help with international careers is to pull each other up,” Arif Zein, a marketer who has worked with mass sporting events for more than a decade, tells Forbes. He, for example, worked in the team of operational management of competitions at the Olympics in Sochi, the World Cups in Brazil and Russia and other events.
Zane got to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by accident. In February, after the start of the “special operation”, he lost his job in the Champions League of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). The marketer worked for the Russian organizing committee, but in 2022 the Union decided to move the championship final from St. Petersburg to Paris. Along with the change of the host country, the organizing committee also changed – so Zane was left without a job.
Since March, Arif has been trying to find work abroad in marketing, PR and sales in the sports industry. But the attempts were unsuccessful: after sending 70 applications, he received only three responses. “I felt for myself that the cancellation affected not only Russian athletes, but also other professionals who are involved in this business,” Zane admits.
In April 2022, when the marketer was almost desperate, he was contacted by the creative studio Pitch Sports, which provides hospitality, marketing and logistics services for sports events. With its co-founders, Russians Stepan and Elvira Lianozova, Zane met in 2014 at the Sochi Olympics. After the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Lianozov decided to move the Pitch Sports business and employees abroad to work with foreign customers. Together with his wife and a French partner, he registered a legal entity in France, and subsequently bankrupted the Russian company.
Pitch Sports told Zayn that it had won a bid to work with Qatar’s national bank QNB, one of the sponsors of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In his own words, Zein helped the company prepare documents for the tender in 2021. “We agreed that if the tender succeeds, then I will join the project,” he recalls. The studio brought him in as a brand director.
The French Pitch Sports contract with QNB involved work in two areas: the bank’s 360-degree marketing campaign (including offline and online channels) at the event, meeting and escorting the bank’s VIP guests. Lianozov, in an interview with Forbes, did not disclose the amount of the contract, but according to Zane, he was “fat”. For this reason, international agencies fought for it, among other things.
Pitch Sports had a “strong international portfolio” and that played a key role in partnering with QNB, Zane said. Stepan Lianozov notes other reasons for success: lower cost of services in comparison with competitors in the tender and the team. Among its first members, in addition to Zane, was Oksana Belyaeva, the former marketing director of Alfa-Bank. According to Lianozov, she was doing a project similar to the Qatari one in Russia (Alfa-Bank was a regional sponsor of the 2018 World Cup). “Not a single competitor in the tender had a person with such experience,” the entrepreneur notes.
According to Zane, a total of ten people worked on the project. Among them were Russians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, he lists: “The team was Russian-speaking, but international.” The only requirement that the bank put forward to the national composition was not to include Arabic speakers in the marketing team. The reason is Arabic, which is spoken in both Qatar and the UAE, Arif explains: “They didn’t want the team to know what the bank meeting participants were talking about.” All people through acquaintances were recruited by Lianozov, Zein and Belyaeva.
Russian roots have played into the hands of the company, says Lianozov: “We are more flexible compared to the British and Americans.” Zayn also talks about this. According to his observations, the business environment in Qatar is reminiscent of Moscow in the 2000s: “For example, the locals do not have a brief culture: there is no single document, there are only desires that need to be deciphered, painted and turned into a brief — exactly like in Moscow at the beginning of the 2000s. Cool European or American agencies would not do this. And we [русские] – more accommodating. The Qataris themselves once told us: “We will always come to an agreement with the Russians.”
QNB did not respond to a request from Forbes. In addition to the bank, Pitch Sports has contracted car holding company Hyundai and smartphone brand Vivo to provide hospitality services, including meeting and hosting sponsor guests. Pitch Sports generated $5 million from these contracts, a source close to Pitch Sports told Forbes. Lianozov declined to comment on this figure.
Another business of Lianozova worked at the championship – a logistics company for sporting events, Accord Pitch Doha. He created it in 2018 with a partner in Qatar and from the very start he planned to become a contractor for the 2022 World Cup.
At the start, Accord Pitch Doha began working with “a lobbyist for Russian-speaking companies in the Middle East,” the strategic management consulting agency Moscow Policy Group, which operates in Russia and the Gulf countries, says the entrepreneur. The company, he said, helped Accord Pitch Doha find suppliers and make contacts. Already in 2021, the project was responsible for transfers at the stage of the Formula 1 World Championship (Qatar Grand Prix), which was held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, Lianozov claims.
The first major contract related to the 2022 World Cup was signed by the company back in 2020. The customer was the same Hyundai holding, one of the sponsors of the championship in Qatar, with which the Pitch Sports agency worked. Lianozov says that the holding, as a sponsor, provided vehicles for the transportation of teams, delegates, judges, etc. to the championship. Hyundai attracted Accord Pitch Doha to manage this transport at the event, he claims.
In total, according to Lianozov, the company signed 38 contracts for transport management, providing cars and drivers for the World Cup in Qatar. Among the customers, in addition to Hyundai, was the organizing committee of the Qatar 2022 event. According to a source close to Accord Pitch Doha, the company earned more than $55 million from these contracts in 2022. Lianozov declined to comment on the figure.
The entrepreneur admits that working in Qatar was not easy. The company needed to find about 800 buses and 4,000 cars to transport delegates, athletes and their families. “A family drove cars under our control [аргентинского футболиста] Lionel Messi, ”the entrepreneur is proud. More than half of the vehicles had to be brought from abroad. “Qatar is a small country, like Moscow within the Garden Ring. There are not enough luxury cars and buses here,” explains Lianozov. The company rented cars for a period of one to six months and brought them from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and European countries.
Accord Pitch Doha also hired through agencies and brought drivers to the country. Among them were Indians, Pakistanis, French, Germans, British, lists Lianozova. The company worked with the latter for the first time. “We wanted [привлечь в качестве водителей] native English speakers to provide the best service for national teams and guests,” he explains. But this turned out to be a problem: according to the entrepreneur, British drivers often complained about poor working conditions. “They drank our blood: they constantly complained that the villas where we settled them did not have a pool, that there was little greenery in Qatar. About 10-15 people flew home on the very first day after arrival, ”Lianozov assures.
The company hired drivers with a margin, so the departure of some of them did not create additional difficulties. Much more problems arose because of the appeal of drivers to the press, the entrepreneur complains. In November 2022, the British newspaper Express published an article with drivers complaining that Russian and Qatari organizers were not paying the salaries promised under the contract. More than 40 drivers arrived in Qatar, according to the text. Contracts with them were concluded for six weeks, they assumed payment of £5000 (€6000). Drivers were required to work 12-hour shifts and receive one day off per week. In fact, they were treated like slaves who were supposed to be in touch 24/7, without the right to free time, the newspaper writes, citing the drivers.
Lianozov denies these accusations, noting that Accord Pitch Doha paid all salaries on time, and the drivers received three times more money than was originally discussed. “All drivers worked in accordance with the law, but yes, they really need to be in touch, as they drove national teams. It was a FIFA requirement,” he says. According to him, three drivers who did not pass the FIFA selection during the training were interviewed by the publication: “They got into an accident during the training and they were sent home.”
The entrepreneur calls the output of the text “the blackest day” of the championship. “After that, I went to the Supreme Committee, where I explained the situation, and the FIFA Organizing Committee arranged an audit for us, which is still going on,” complains Lianozov.
The power of light
Among the contractors of both Lianozova’s companies, as well as among those whom they recommended to customers, there were many Russian-speaking freelancers and teams. “We pulled up the Russians, realizing that today we pulled up, tomorrow they will pull us up,” says Zane. – Besides, [опыт работы на таком мероприятии] can interrupt any situation and prove that it is possible to work with the Russians even now.” Pitch Sports, for example, attracted a design agency from Tatarstan to the championship. It has designed two QNB booths in stadiums. Zane does not disclose its name, but notes that the team acted as a contractor for Euro 2020 and the last World Cup.
The largest contractor recommended by the agency to the bank was the interactive media studio Sila Sveta, founded in 2007 by Russian entrepreneurs Alexander Us (this is a pseudonym, Alexander’s real name is Usyskin) and Alexei Rozov. The company has worked with major Russian and foreign artists, including the Russian group Leningrad, American rappers Drake and The Weeknd. Sila Sveta designed concerts for them.
Zane says that Pitch Sports needed to create 3D animations for the bank’s digital screens around the stadiums. The discussion of potential contractors began in June 2022. Initially, the bank wanted to involve a Qatari agency. But Zane and his colleagues, who are familiar with the work of Sila Sveta, showed the team’s work to QNB, and he changed his mind. “The client looked and said. “Oh, we like these better. Let’s. We still have time to work with the locals,” Zane recounts. In August, Pitch Sports contacted Sila Sveta and invited the company to take part in the tender. In September, the bank and Sila Sveta signed a contract, and in October 3D visualizations for four stands were ready.
Alexander Uss, in an interview with Forbes, recalls that in total the company took part in 15 tenders for work in the championship. One of them related to the graphics on the screens in the stadiums, it was carried out by the FIFA organizing committee in May 2022. Then the creative director of Sila Sveta, Artur Kondrashenkov, decided to give a more detailed proposal and included a planned plan for the closing show
Kondrashenkov notes that the company did not hope to win the tender for the closing show: “There was a feeling that the organizing committee already had a contractor.” But in September 2022, the organizing committee returned to the agency and offered to do the entire championship show, he says. The team was entrusted with the concept, direction, performance of artists and lighting. This was a challenge for Sila Sveta, says Kondrashenkov. At the time of the proposal, a little more than two months remained before the championship. “If we started, say, in June, the work would be more comfortable,” he concludes.
The company signed a contract with the Qatari recording studio Katara Studios, which recorded a series of soundtracks and videos for the championship. She acted as a FIFA contractor. The amount of the contract in Sila Sveta is not disclosed, referring to a non-disclosure agreement. The founder of the event agency Departament Pavel Nedostaev estimates the amount of the Sila Sveta contract for organizing the show at $7 million.
Kondrashenkov says that the coordination of the final show by the organizing committee and FIFA dragged on until November. Therefore, the company did most of the organizational work on the show after the start of the championship. The size of the team was also a challenge. Us claims that about 1,000 people worked on the show, including artists, employees of FIFA, the Supreme Committee, Katara Studios and BWS, which was responsible for the technical part of the event. The Sila Sveta team involved in the 2022 World Cup consisted of 50 people, including producers, the director and his team, etc.
Pushkin in Qatar
Other Russian companies also worked at the championship. For example, the Kazan company Informatika provided electronic access control systems for spectators to the championship. She has already worked at major sporting events, including the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup. The company brought turnstiles, scanners for checking tickets, etc. to Qatar.
The team went to Qatar to negotiate cooperation at the championship back in 2017, David Tartakovsky, director of Informatika, said in an interview with Vedomosti.Sport. It was possible to get an order thanks to acquaintances. “When we arrived in Qatar, we tried to negotiate with everyone we could. We were known in the organizing committee of the tournament, because some of its employees came to Russia to gain experience. And during the 2018 World Cup, our systems were already in five arenas, plus Samara, Saransk, Kaliningrad and Rostov-on-Don, in addition to Kazan, ”Tartakovsky says in this interview.
The company signed a contract and delivered equipment before the 2020 pandemic. The Qatari partners of Infomatika were engaged in the installation of equipment on site, its director said. The company declined to answer Forbes questions about partners, supply volumes and other details.
Catering at the championship was handled by the Russian restaurant group Maison Dellos (Café Pushkin, restaurants Turandon, Bochka and others). She won a contract to operate VIP areas and lounges at three stadiums in December 2021. By that time, Maison Dellos had already been working in Qatar for two years – in 2019, the Pushkin cafe opened in Doha. The company also repeatedly provided catering services at sporting events: the holding acted as a partner at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, the World Football Championship in 2018 in Moscow. The group declined to comment. According to Alexei Sorokin, Maison Dellos was not a key catering contractor for the 2022 World Cup: “Catering was evenly distributed among several contractors.”
There is also a “Russian trace” in the furniture at the stadiums where the World Cup was held in Qatar. It was supplied by the Russian Mr.Doors, two sources close to the company told Forbes, and Anton Makarov, the founder of the Divan.ru furniture company, who discussed potential cooperation in the championship with the company, confirmed it. The founder of Mr.Doors Maxim Valetsky neither confirmed nor denied this information. “I am pleased that Mr. Doors is mentioned in projects of such a high level. We really began to actively develop in the global market after opening a representative office in Istanbul, and we already have serious developments and projects in the portfolio,” he said. He refused to talk about the details of international projects.
One source close to the company says that in early 2020, the team was approached by FIFA’s exclusive hospitality contractor. He invited Mr.Doors to take part in the tender. The interlocutor of Forbes notes that until that moment the parties had no business relationship. And the customer company found out about the manufacturer thanks to the Russian-speaking team, he says: “There are a lot of Russians working in it, and many of them have our furniture at home.”
The Forbes interlocutor recalls that the tender was serious, the approval process took several months – the company received the contract only in August 2020. The contract required her to supply 30,000 pieces of furniture, including sofas, tables and chairs, to stadiums and fan areas. Mr.Doors could not produce such a volume on its own, so in 2021 it was looking for partners. Forbes spoke about the relevant negotiations, for example, Anton Makarov from Divan.ru.
After the events of February 2022, Mr.Doors abandoned the idea to bring furniture from Russia, says a source close to the company. The team refocused on Turkish contractors. She signed contracts with several factories that produced custom-made furniture, says the Forbes interlocutor. Mr.Doors showed the first samples to the customer in the spring. In 2022, the company also re-signed a contract with him – since April, the European legal entity Mr.Doors has acted as a contractor.
The source explains the change in the starting location and legal entity, among other things, by the desire of the furniture company to minimize the risks associated with Russian origin. “FIFA seriously considered the refusal of Russian suppliers, Russian employees. They would have done it if they had not realized that then the championship would not take place, because the number of Russian managers for the events [к 2022 году] went off scale, ”says the source of Forbes. A source close to the organizing committee of the championship also heard about the discussion of the refusal of Russian suppliers: “But I personally asked high-ranking FIFA colleagues to confirm this information, and they claimed that this was not so.”
Forbes interlocutors have not yet undertaken to evaluate the effect of participation in the 2022 World Cup for business. According to Artur Kondrashenkov from Sila Sveta, it will become clear in six months. However, according to the founder of Sila Sveta Alexander Us, one of the regular American customers has already returned to the company, who stopped communicating after the start of the “special operation”.
Sila Sveta intends to continue working in the Middle East. Accord Pitch Doha also plans to develop further in this market. Lianozov, in his own words, wants to team up with one of the Russian transport companies in order to build a transport business in Qatar that is not geared towards events. The entrepreneur has not yet disclosed the details.
Mr.Doors also plans to increase its presence in the Middle East market, says one of the sources close to the company: “Mr.Doors wanted to enter the emerging markets of Saudi Arabia and the UAE even before the championship. Now the task of the company here is to build a systemic b2b business in these countries.”