Qatar: the na­tion that wants it all

The lo­ca­tion of the 2022 World Cup is the most con­tentious is­sue foot­ball has ever faced. Tim Rich pays a rare visit to the desert state and wit­nesses the money, mad­ness and may­hem be­hind the scenes of what will be the game’s strangest tour­na­ment

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

THE IDEA had been to stand at the place where the 2022 World Cup would be­gin, prob­a­bly in eight Novem­bers’ time. I failed. You would have to walk on wa­ter.

The Lu­sail Iconic Sta­dium will host the first and the last matches of the most con­tro­ver­sial World Cup for a gen­er­a­tion.

How­ever, not only does it not yet ex­ist, they are still build­ing the is­land it will sit on. That will hold an 80 000-seater sta­dium, two golf cour­ses, a cou­ple of mari­nas and, nat­u­rally be­cause this is the Ara­bian Gulf, a vast shop­ping com­plex. Doha, Qatar’s cap­i­tal, of­ten re­sem­bles an end­less build­ing site and this is its great­est project.

To see what Lu­sail might be like, you can go to its sis­ter is­land, The Pearl. It has a ma­rina that re­sem­bles an Ara­bian Monaco. The only sound on a Novem­ber night are Fer­raris and Maser­atis revving out­side the show­rooms that guard a dis­creet shop­ping ar­cade. When it is fi­nally fin­ished, it will have cost $15 bil­lion (R165bn). Lu­sail will cost more.

The most poignant plea to stage a World Cup was made by the head of the Chile FA, Car­los Dit­tborn, who had seen much of his coun­try re­duced to rub­ble by an earth­quake. “Chile must have the World Cup,” he said, “be­cause we have noth­ing.”

Cu­ri­ously and ro­man­ti­cally, Fifa awarded the 1962 tour­na­ment to the na­tion that had noth­ing. Half a cen­tury on, they gave it to the coun­try that has ev­ery­thing.

Once Novem­ber is cho­sen, Qatar will have to plan how to ac­com­mo­date 300 000 fans in a coun­try of 1.7 mil­lion. For the 2006 Asian Games, they moored cruise lin­ers be­side the Al Cor­niche water­front, although for the World Cup, the gov­ern­ment may have to buy an en­tire fleet.

The so­lu­tion may be to stay in Dubai and take the half-hour flight to Doha rather than opt for the strange col­lec­tion of towns that have been se­lected to be­come “World Cup host ci­ties”. Fifa re­quires eight. Brazil had a dozen be­cause Luiz Lula, the na­tion’s pres­i­dent when the bid was ac­cepted, had his power base in the north and wanted to re­ward his back­ers.

His other prom­ises, a metro sys­tem for For­taleza, a mono­rail for Manaus, never ma­te­ri­alised but it led to what the Italy mid­fielder, An­drea Pirlo, called “two World Cups, one in the north; one in the south”.

Qatar will be one World Cup, based around a sin­gle city. Doha will get its metro, the only so­lu­tion to chok­ing traf­fic, but, away from the cap­i­tal, there are the mot­ley “host ci­ties”.

My driver had no idea why I would want to travel to Al-Wakra which will stage group and round-of16 matches in a sta­dium crit­ics scoffed was shaped like a vag­ina. The town has a beach, a strik­ing look­ing round­about and rows upon rows of uni­form beige houses and the in­evitable, fran­tic build­ing works. It is noth­ing more than a dor­mi­tory town for Doha. “That’s it,” my driver said as we ar­rived.

The driver, who came to Qatar from the horn of Africa “for money, why else does any­one come to Qatar?”, was baf­fled by my decision to visit. Al-Wakra makes Rusten­burg seem like Paris in the 1920s.

Drive a cou­ple of hours through Qatar’s scrubby, rocky desert with a few tele­graph poles and the in­evitable ce­ment lor­ries for company, and you come to Al-Shamal, another “host city”.

It pos­sesses one of the coun­try’s more charm­ing tourist spots, a fort that once guarded the Straits of Hor­muz with its Napoleonic-era can­non.

It has been granted a 45 000-seater sta­dium, which will seat nine times more than Al-Shamal’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

Qatar’s am­bi­tions are not limited to the World Cup. It has just won the right to stage the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships in 2019, in the face of op­po­si­tion from Barcelona and Eu­gene in Ore­gon. The ar­gu­ments against it are fa­mil­iar to any­one who has raged against its award of the World Cup – the heat, the sight of a sport bow­ing down be­fore the petrodol­lars and a tour­na­ment squeez­ing it­self in to match Qatar’s re­quire­ments. The pro­posal is for the marathon to be run at night.

Only in a very few cases – the Berlin Olympics, the cricket tours of apartheid South Africa – does sport be­come over­shad­owed by pol­i­tics.

On the au­di­to­rium wall where the Doha Goal Sports Fo­rum was be­ing hosted last week, is a line that starts: “All kids around the world want to be Pele,” a mod­est quote from Pele. The images of the 1970 World Cup are still vividly fresh; a fluid team pass­ing the ball with beauty in the white light of Mex­ico. No­body men­tions that the win­ners re­turned to Brazil to a re­cep­tion from a fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship.

Eight years later, when a far blood­ier gang of dic­ta­tors, the Ar­gen­tine junta, staged the World Cup, the atroc­i­ties ex­plained away by an Amer­i­can pub­lic re­la­tions firm, only one foot­baller, the West Ger­man mid­fielder, Paul Bre­it­ner, re­fused to travel. There will be no boy­cott of Qatar 2022.

The Amer­i­can ath­letes forced to boy­cott

Half a cen­tury later, Fifa gave it to the coun­try with ev­ery­thing

the Moscow Olympics in 1980 be­cause of the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan might have won­dered what the sacrifice was for when their own coun­try in­vaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Se­bas­tian Coe, the man who led the IAAF in­spec­tion of the bid for the World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships, chose to go to Moscow in 1980. “The decision to give the Games to the Soviet Union was made in 1973 and ev­ery­one went: ‘Er­rrm, I’m not sure.’ Look­ing back, I like to think I was part of the in­fancy of change by go­ing there,” he said. “Big sport­ing events be­gin de­bates about things politi­cians never get close to.”

In his ap­pear­ance at Doha Goals, Coe was clear on two points. The time to judge the suc­cess of an Olympics or a World Cup is a decade after it has fin­ished. Barcelona, by his judge­ment, was a great Olympics be­cause it trans­formed the city for ever.

Coe’s sec­ond point is that the Premier League and Fox Tele­vi­sion, who have paid $425m to tele­vise the World Cup only to dis­cover a Novem­ber tour­na­ment will clash with the NFL sea­son, will have to swal­low it in the name of a global sport­ing cal­en­dar.

Had Qatar been clev­erer, they would have in­volved the whole of the Gulf – Dubai, Bahrain and Mus­cat. It would have made sense to have had an Ara­bian World Cup and, given the money Arse­nal, Manch­ester City, Paris Saint-Ger­main, Real Madrid and Barcelona have taken in in­flated spon­sor­ships from the Gulf, few could have ar­gued if, sud­denly, the Gulf wanted some­thing back.

But that is to mis­read the ri­val­ries that split the re­gion. The emi­rates com­pete among them­selves. The Qatar that won the right to stage the World Cup is not just a coun­try that has ev­ery­thing; it is a na­tion that wants it all. – The In­de­pen­dent


HOT TOPIC: Fifa pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter has ad­mit­ted that award­ing the World Cup to Qatar was a mis­take, but in­sists that coun­try did not buy the tour­na­ment.

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