QATAR ON COURSE FOR ITS IMPROBABLE WORLD CUP
Preparations unbelievably going to plan for Qatar's World Cup
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Construction is continuing apace at Al Wakrah stadium, in Qatar.
Fans of the Qatari soccer club Al Sadd SC watch a match at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha.
Hassan al-Thawadi, head of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup committee.