QATAR ON COURSE FOR ITS IM­PROB­A­BLE WORLD CUP

Prepa­ra­tions un­be­liev­ably go­ing to plan for Qatar's World Cup

Vocable (All English) - - Société - DAVID CONN

In 2010, to every­one’s sur­prise, Fifa chose Qatar to host the foot­ball World Cup in 2022. The tiny Mid­dle East­ern state, known for its in­tensely hot tem­per­a­tures, has been crit­i­cised for the poor con­di­tions of its for­eign work­ers con­struct­ing the sta­di­ums. How­ever, hav­ing ig­nored the con­tro­versy, Qatar is re­dou­bling its ef­forts to be ready in time for what prom­ises to be an ex­cep­tional event…

It be­gan al­most a decade ago as the most un­fea­si­ble bid ever to host a World Cup: an out­landish pro­posal for “air-cooled” sta­di­ums in the desert sum­mer heat of a tiny, ob­scure­seem­ing Arab emi­rate with one city, Doha, pop­u­lated by just 300,000 cit­i­zens. Qatar is though, the rich­est per capita state on earth, and on that cold Zurich night in De­cem­ber 2010 its bid suc­ceeded in gar­ner­ing a ma­jor­ity of Fifa ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee votes, and claimed the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

2. Since then Qatar’s planned host­ing of the tour­na­ment – its ubiq­ui­tous slo­gan in Doha is “De­liver Amaz­ing” with its stated mis­sion to unify peo­ple in the Mid­dle East and pro­ject a pos­i­tive Arab ex­pe­ri­ence – has sur­vived a hur­ri­cane of chal­lenges. There have been waves of cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions, which the sec­re­tary gen­eral of the “supreme com­mit­tee” or­gan­is­ing the World Cup, Has­san al-Thawadi, re­peat­edly de­nied.

3. In­ten­sive Fifa in­quiries into the vote did not find Qatar’s bid more ir­reg­u­lar than Aus­tralia’s – or Eng­land’s for 2018 and the FBI’s crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Amer­i­can Fifa foot­ball barons has pro­duced noth­ing solid against Qatar. There has been in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Qatar’s regime for mi­grant work­ers, now part of a re­form process the gov­ern­ment is con­duct­ing in part­ner­ship with the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion. In June last year, po­lit­i­cal hos­til­i­ties erupted in the im­me­di­ate re­gion and Qatar re­mains sub­ject to an ac­tual block­ade led by its much big­ger, loom­ing neigh­bour, Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Bahrain and Egypt.

UNTROUBLED PREPA­RA­TIONS

4. Yet prepa­ra­tions in­side the coun­try are con­tin­u­ing al­most untroubled, and now Qatar looks most likely to also ride a late ef­fort by the Fifa pres­i­dent, Gianni In­fantino, to ex­pand the tour­na­ment from 32 to 48 teams and have the coun­try share some matches with other coun­tries in the re­gion. The foot­balling cal­en­dar has al­ready been re­ordered – mov­ing the World Cup from

sum­mer to win­ter for the first time, to es­cape the desert heat.

5. So, still some­how un­be­liev­ably, in four years’ time, the World Cup re­ally will kick off in Qatar, in one of the seven en­tirely new, all air-cooled sta­di­ums, with the 80,000-seater in the newly built Doha dis­trict of Lu­sail the venue for the fi­nal on 18 De­cem­ber. And, as al­ways in­tended when the supremely am­bi­tious Sheikh Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa al-Thani, then the coun­try’s ruler, pushed Qatar to bid, it will play host to the most watched sport­ing tour­na­ment on earth. Amaz­ing, pur­pose-built stages will have been built for the likes of Kylian Mbappé, 23 by then, Ney­mar, per­haps a vet­eran Li­onel Messi and foot­ball’s other stars to cap­ti­vate a global au­di­ence. And Qatar will broad­cast its cho­sen im­age to the world.

COLOS­SAL BUD­GET

6. In a coun­try grown rapidly rich be­yond imag­in­ing be­cause of its pi­o­neer­ing ex­ploita­tion of liq­uid nat­u­ral gas, the bo­nanza has cre­ated a Gulf city of sky­scrapers and malls, which can put on a World Cup from scratch. The of­fi­cial bud­get for World Cup-spe­cific con­struc­tion is put by Tha- wadi at be­tween $8bn and $10bn, although that is but­tressed by the $200bn be­ing spent more gen­er­ally to have a new metro sys­tem and huge in­fra­struc­ture ready for 2022.

7. In Qatar it is im­me­di­ately strik­ing how ad­vanced the plans are, the im­prob­a­ble bid now solidly ce­mented with facts on the ground. The one World Cup sta­dium not be­ing built from scratch, the Khal­ifa In­ter­na­tional sta­dium – named af­ter the fa­ther Sheikh Ha­mad de­posed in a blood­less palace coup in 1995 – had its re­con­fig­u­ra­tion com­pleted last year.

SCEP­TI­CISM

8. Of the eight sta­di­ums, per­haps the most sym­bolic is the 60,000-seat Al Bayt, which is in ad­vanced, eye-catch­ing con­struc­tion at Al Khor, a cur­rently dusty dis­trict 20 miles north of Doha. It is named and de­signed af­ter bayt al sha’ar, tents used by the no­madic peo­ple of Qatar be­fore the money rained in. Driv­ing past it, we could see the tele­vi­sual state­ment it will make for Qatar in 2022: look, world, we were tent-dwellers be­fore, and look at all we can do now.

9. Yet be­ing in Doha even for a few days prompts the same scep­ti­cism which has al­ways smoth­ered the Qatar bid. It is a small, claus­tro­pho­bic city of sky­scrapers and malls, where peo­ple mostly do not walk be­cause in the hot, im­pos­si­bly hu­mid sum­mer, only the mi­grant work­ers, who built it all, spend any time out­side. All so­ci­eties are un­equal and class-based to some ex­tent, but in Qatar the di­vides are ex­treme. While the Qataris, many of them English or US-ed­u­cated, have been blessed with most priv­i­leged lives, the 1.7 mil­lion mi­grant work­ers are mostly men from the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, brought thou­sands of miles from their fam­i­lies, housed in camps, with no ques­tion of cit­i­zen­ship.

10. It is a lit­tle dif­fi­cult, too, to en­vis­age what the prospec­tive 1.5 mil­lion fans ex­pected for 2022 will do with their leisure time; be­yond the Cor­niche, Souq Waqif and a cou­ple of cul­tural cen­tres, Doha’s list of tourist ac­tiv­i­ties runs quickly into shop­ping malls.

11. Yet al­most 10 years into sell­ing his vi­sion, Thawadi can still brim with en­thu­si­asm and be­lieves the tour­na­ment it­self will over­come any reser­va­tions: “The weather is go­ing to be fan­tas­tic,” he says. “Sun, sand and beach, you can en­joy that. We’re adding the desert ex­pe­ri­ence … a phenom­e­nal, mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. And the sim­ple fact is: the World Cup it­self is a spec­ta­cle.”

(Olya Mor­van/ The New York Times)

Con­struc­tion is con­tin­u­ing apace at Al Wakrah sta­dium, in Qatar.

(Olya Mor­van/ The New York Times)

Fans of the Qatari soc­cer club Al Sadd SC watch a match at the Jas­sim bin Ha­mad Sta­dium in Doha.

(Earl Wil­son/ The New York Times)

Has­san al-Thawadi, head of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup com­mit­tee.

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