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 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.