During the festive season of 2010, FIFA announced that Qatar would be hosting the World Cup in 2022. To judge much of the international reaction, they may as well have announced that Santa Claus was dead.
For all the long-term rumblings of corruption and naked venality at football’s top governing body, somehow selecting this tiny, searingly hot, socially repressive desert nation with its scant and indifferent soccer lineage seemed the proverbial last straw, the ultimate betrayal of the world’s game.
How, we wondered, could such a decision possibly claim to be uninfluenced by money? After all, Qatar had seemingly nothing other than vast wealth to recommend it. Even the great Zinedine Zidane, a player so respected and loved his infamous World Cup final headbutt was more celebrated than censured, came under fire for accepting untold sums to act as ambassador for the Qatar 2022 bid.
Yet amid the shocked clamour, some notable positives of the bid went ignored. Some of the technical aspects of the bid show intriguing promise. Qatar 2022 aims to be the first carbon-neutral World Cup, aided by short travelling distances and engineering innovation which will harness solar energy to power and cool the stadiums.
The bid also won brownie points on two fronts with its proposal to dismantle stadiums after the tournament and reconstruct them in developing nations, addressing the perennial problem of “white elephant” construction while neatly giving back to the football community’s neediest.
And in fact, if we pause to give Zidane the benefit of the doubt, his motives may be far from mercenary: famously proud of his Maghrebi roots, it is perfectly reasonable he should back the first Arab World Cup.
At a time when Arab-Western tensions form one of humanity’s most perilous fault-lines, inviting the world to the Arabian Gulf could just be one of the more inspired strokes of football diplomacy.
So when I had the opportunity recently to spend a few days in the Qatari capital of Doha, I went with an open mind, ready and willing to be convinced that Qatar 2022 was not the borderline corrupt perversion of principle it has been portrayed, but perhaps a stroke of diplomatic genius and creative innovation.
After all, who could argue against an event that could bring unprecedented understanding between two cultures at simmeringly dangerous loggerheads?
Unfortunately, an openness to conversion was not enough. The logistical problems that have been most thoroughly thrashed out in the press are the heat (cited by FIFA’s own technical report as “a serious health risk”), congestion (with eight of the twelve stadiums all in Doha, which as yet has no public transportation) and restrictive laws (the prohibition of public drinking and drunken behaviour clearly sounds alarm bells with fans and sponsors alike).
The first two are issues that Qatar just might be able to mitigate with the liberal application of cash: no expense is being spared in designing revolutionary cooling solutions for the stadiums, and in a country where construction occurs at breakneck speed aided by the very best of global architectural and engineering talent, a state-of-the-art transportation system will no doubt be in place with time to spare.
But while the latter problem in theory will be addressed by FIFA’s power to override local laws and policies ( an agreement required from all World Cup hosts), it hints at more subtle but pervasive problems.
Because more challenging than Qatar’s scorching summer heat could be the Qataris’ chilly reception. From my experience, it appears that unless you are a member of the FIFA Executive, being lavishly wined and dined, Qatar is not the most welcoming of locales.
Western visitors in general seem to be greeted with a mix of indifference and discomfort. If the sight of women in modest short sleeves provokes a gamut of unpleasant reactions, it begs speculation on how locals will deal with the typical Brazilian entourage.
No doubt over the next decade, the powers that be in Qatar — those who secured the World Cup in the first place; those responsible for the multi-billion-dollar global charm offensive of the Qatar Foundation — will launch a mighty public awareness programme to prepare their people for the massive, manic World Cup fan onslaught.
Only once the painted, boisterous hordes descend will we know how ready Qatar really is to host the world — or the World Cup.
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