A tournament built on sand: How can the tiny emirate of Qatar sustain the World Cup - the biggest show on earth?
Michael Walker has spent a week in Doha, Qatar, taking in the 2011 Asian Cup. Here he gives his verdict on the country so controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup…
It’s sunny, it’s 70 degrees, the sea is blue and it’s January. You hear the phrase ‘AC’ a lot. That’s air conditioning. Yesterday’s front page of The Peninsula paper carried a report that began: ‘The first air-conditioned bus shelter will be opened tomorrow on the Corniche.’
The five stadiums in use for the Asian Cup are perfectly fine. The Al-Saad ground where India played Australia on Monday is tight and tidy. It has AC — though it wasn’t on. The attendance was 9,783.
There was a small queue at the ticket office in the City Centre Mall on Tuesday. A category A game ticket was available for 40 Riyal — under £7. People have not been priced out.
Deserted: Crowds at the Asian Cup have been sparse
POPULATION AND CULTURE
A conclusion to be drawn from these initial impressions is that, no matter how bored people are of Qatar’s weather and lack of football culture, these remain major issues. There was zero credibility when Qatar’s bid triumphed in Zurich in December and there is little more now. Organising one of the numerous annual tennis or golf tournaments around — and the Asian Cup — bears no relation to staging a World Cup that arrives once every four years.
Qatar has a native population of approximately 300,000 — mainly in Doha — with a further 1.1million inhabitants, most of whom are contracted workers. It becomes ever more clear that there needs to be a critical mass to stage a successful tournament. It is simply not sustainable to give a World Cup to a place the size of Hull.
Given the local Qatar Stars League, there is some football interest but that is different from a football culture. Comparisons have been made with South Africa: at its League Cup final at Soccer City in Soweto last month the attendance was over 90,000. South Africa has a football culture and a population.
Seat wave: Two fans wait for South Korea and Bahrain to kick off
Qatar is pronounced Katter — as in Blatter — so until such time as the oil-slick FIFA president is removed in a putsch or reverses this decision, perhaps he should be known as this. There are rumblings that Sepp opposed the Qatar bid. Let him prove it.
Harry Kewell said after Australia defeated India 4-0: ‘So far I can’t complain, the stadium was perfect, the pitches are perfect, the training facilities are perfect, the hotel’s great, the food’s great, the weather’s great, what more could you say?
‘The people are courteous. They love their football as much as the next person. Why not share it about? Share the love.
‘It’s getting bigger and bigger in Asia. The Asian Cup isn’t as big as the European Championship but it’s like our miniature World Cup. For one of us to win the World Cup would be hard so this is a chance for one of us to win a major tournament.’
Auspicious beginnings: Fans travel to the opening game between Qatar and Uzbekistan
Each team bus have been given a logo but nothing beats: ‘Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bahrain.’
BEST PLAYER SO FAR
Server Djeparov may sound like an IT problem, but he is the captain of Uzbekistan.
As those from other Gulf states are quick to point out, Qatar have never qualified for a World Cup and never won the Asian Cup. In Fifa’s rankings released yesterday, Qatar are 105th in the world. In English terms that makes Qatar the 13th best side outside the 92 clubs of the Premier and Football Leagues. That makes them Rushden & Diamonds.
With a Senegalese goalkeeper, a Uruguayan and a Brazilian in their side, Qatar were pub-team awful in the tournament opener against Uzbekistan. Qatar improved considerably in defeating an incoherent China 2-0 last night. Yousuf Ahmed, the scorer of both goals, is from Somalia, though perhaps these places of birth should not be mentioned in front of the England cricket team.
I predict a riot: Qatar players mob striker Yusef Ahmed after his second goal against China
Much-travelled, as they say. Houghton was 31 when he took unheralded Malmo to the European Cup final against Nottingham Forest in 1979. Now he’s manager of cricket-daft India. Spare a thought for him. India have a population of one billion. Of those, 90 are professionals. One plays outside India.
A REGIONAL VIEW
Afshin Ghotbi, the manager of Iran, said: ‘There were doubts hanging over South Africa until a few months before the kick-off of the 2010 World Cup. Now all of us know it was a big success taking the World Cup to a new territory. We as neighbours are as happy with Qatar’s winning bid.
‘Everyone in the region is looking up to Qatar. It’s a big opportunity for the West to mend their hearts with the Middle East.’
Bobby blues: Houghton has only 90 professionals to choose from
Spread it around. In some quarters, as Iran’s manager said, 2022 is portrayed as a Middle East World Cup. But Qatar is a Gulf state first, then a Middle East state. The Gulf consists of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Only Oman are not here. Even within this group, Qatar are football minnows. The idea was raised in December and again yesterday by UEFA president Michel Platini. ‘I hope it will be a World Cup of the Gulf,’ Platini said.
You could call Doha a work in progress, or a construction site. It being the only conurbation, to host 2022 Qatar is constructing another city, not just a stadium. In it the World Cup final — the stage of Hurst, Pele, Muller, Kempes up to Andres Iniesta — will be held. Judging by the pace of construction here, you would not doubt it will be built, all of it, and that the infrastructure will be impressive. If it were an infrastructure World Cup, this would be the place to hold it.
No chance: Odil Akhmedov scores for Uzbekistan against hosts Qatar in Doha's Khalifa Stadium,
THE BOTTOM LINE
It cannot be avoided: Qatar should not have the 2022 World Cup. No matter how long you spend here, the sense that a dubious decision was reached in Zurich will not change. The weather turns out to be just one consideration.
FIFA are prepared to address that — after the fact — and now Platini has raised sharing the tournament across the Gulf. Six weeks after Zurich a summer World Cup in Qatar has become a winter World Cup in the Gulf. What else can change in the next 11 years?
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