When FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, they committed one of the organisation’s most unpopular and detested decisions (and that’s a tough title to win considering the hundreds of top notch competitors in that category).
In order to fulfil the obligation to host the tournament, the tiny state was going to need to adjust the footballing calendar for the majority of European nations, find a way to avoid footballers and spectators suffering from severe heat stroke and construct entirely new stadia thanks to “modern day slave labour” from India and Nepal. In the eyes of Qatar’s government and World Cup organising committee, their natural gas riches can find solutions to all these issues. Clearly, they managed to persuade FIFA officials of the same thing. However, in the past, the country’s attempt at hosting international competitions hasn’t been so successful.
In 2006, Qatar played host to the Asian Games – an Olympic-style competition for all 45 members of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). When it had announced the plan to bid for the competition in 1998, the nation was met with admonishment from press in the Middle East due to the lack of facilities and sporting culture in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Yet by 2000, they had managed to win the trust of their fellow members and beat Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur to become hosts of the Asian Games (leading to claims by the Malaysian government that the OCA had been influenced by the financial wealth of Qatar). Of the 21 venues built, the vast majority were constructed solely for the Asian Games and were divided up among the Q League football clubs after the competition.
The Asian Games were opened by a spectacular ceremony directed by David Atkins, the man who had thought up and ran Sydney’s Olympic opening ceremony in 2000. Hopes were high. Qatar, with its population of just fewer than one million people, had managed to welcome the entire Asian community to its shores and could revel in the international attention it would be afforded by the Games. However, issues began to become evident and tragedy would soon strike.
The first major issue concerned accommodation. Qatar had constructed a $500 million athlete’s village to house 10,500 people – although that was far short of the 14,000 individuals that would eventually fall upon the city of Doha. A thousand beds were squeezed into the existing rooms and three cruise liners had to be hired, at staggering cost, to home the other 2,000 athletes. It wasn’t the kind of situation you expect to be dealing with when you’ve spent billions to ensure everything is perfect for your moment in the limelight.
The next major issue, which FIFA may be concerned with, was the weather. Not because of the heat, but because of the torrential rain in Qatar in November and December. During the opening ceremony the national parties were left exposed to the elements and had to stand soaked for two hours before competing the next day. Outdoor facilities and tracks became a muddy quagmire and would eventually claim an innocent life.
Kim Hyung-chil, a 47-year-old South Korean horse rider, was killed during the equestrian cross-country event when his horse fell at a hurdle and crushed him to death. Many believed that the state of the ground after torrential rain was to blame for the slip, but Christopher Hodson, vice-president of the International Equestrian Federation said that the ground jury wouldn’t have allowed the event to take place if there was any danger to competitors. The tragedy was a dark cloud that would loom over the rest of the Games.
Qatar had finished the Asian Games with their most successful medal haul ever (their under-23 squad had won gold in the football event), but left many still unsure about their ability to host such a huge event. In order to prove their credentials they threw their name into the hat to host the Asian Cup in 2011 and were once again selected after bids from India and Iran failed. Footballing success was once again demanded, but became even more important as the tiny Gulf state was announced as World Cup hosts on the eve of the tournament.
Bruno Metsu (who took Senegal through their famous World Cup campaign in 2002) had had been named the Qatari national team manager in 2008 and was eyeing success in the Asian Cup. However, a stuttering start against Uzbekistan saw the hosts lose 2-0 in front of 37,000 Qatari fans at the Khalifa International Stadium. They managed to scrape through to the knockout stages thanks to victories over China and Kuwait, but couldn’t see off Japan in the next round and succumbed 3-2. The support of Qatar’s fans had impressed thanks to a combined audience of 115,739 for their four matches, but their appetite for the other nations was absent, and an average of 12,000 could only be managed (and crowds as low as 6,000 for some games).
Most recently at Christmas, Qatar hosted the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Championships, and results on the field were much more pleasing. Favourites from the outset, Djamel Belmadi (the Algerian manager brought in for the tournament) and his team progressed through the group stage after 1-0 and 4-1 wins over Palestine and Saudi Arabia, a 3-0 semi-final victory against Kuwait and a jubilant 2-0 win over Jordan in the final. It was the first time that Qatar had been victorious in the competition, yet unfortunately only 9,000 fans turned out to watch the country make history.
Qatar, and the royal family that rules it, are all about image. They realise that geo-political power can be gained by developing a global brand and earning the respect and friendships of much larger countries through philanthropy, trade and sport. Their hosting of the Asian Games, Asian Cup, WAFF Championships and the World Cup are the nation’s chance to have all eyes on them, and they want to show their best side. With money being no problem, they know that providing stadia, accommodation and travel services isn’t going to be an issue, but putting quality on the pitch is a different matter. Their previous policy of luring foreign stars to the Qatar Stars League and naturalising them was scuppered by FIFA, but that only enabled them to implement a much more successful policy.
The Aspire academy in Qatar, a $1 billion facility, scouts nearly half a million teenagers from Asia and Africa every year for sporting talent, brings it to Doha and nurtures it with the best coaches in the world. The next stage of the process is yet unknown. Many suspect that athletes will be enticed to become Qatari citizens, although that is refuted by the academy. Importing footballing talent has been a tactic used over the past decade, bringing in players like Gabriel Batistuta, Marcel Desailly and currently Real Madrid legend Raul, at Al Sadd.
In future, the talent may not have to be imported, but instead developed at home and hopefully feature in Qatar’s 2022 campaign, or even help the country reach a World Cup before that. It is worth bearing in mind that footballing success at the World Cup will be extremely coveted by those in power, and the world may find out the lengths they’ll go to get it.