Following the suspension of two FIFA executive committeemembers for accepting bribes, the world’s governing football organization onDecember 2 announced that Russia and Qatar will host the World Cup (WC) in 2018and 2022 respectively.
While Russia — with England — was a favorite from the start,Qatar came as a total surprise. Especially in the West, commentators ask: whyorganize such a major tournament in such a tiny country that is blessed withsummer temperatures soaring up to 50 degrees, has no football tradition tospeak of, and which most people are unable to locate on a world map?
While this is a legitimate question, it seems thetraditional football power-houses may have underestimated the strength of theQatar bid, as well as FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s wish for the WC to betterreflect the game’s global appeal. In the past, the organization of the world’sbiggest sporting event more or less routinely changed hands between Europe andSouth America. Yet ever since Blatter came to FIFA power in 1998, Asia hostedits first WC in 2004, the first WC in Africa followed in 2010, while the 2022version will be hailed as the first-ever in an Arab and Muslim country.
The (controversial) Blatter believes that football has thepower to bring people together and enhance mutual understanding, peace andprosperity. Critics, however, claim that Blatter’s global interests mainly aimto enhance his own chance of a political FIFA-afterlife. Western footballnations may also have overlooked the influence of Mohamed bin Hammam, theQatari Head of the Asian Football Federation and current “number three” in theFIFA hierarchy, who is a strong candidate to succeed Blatter.
Still, even in the troubled FIFA ranks that would not beenough for Qatar to beat the bids of its main competitors, Australia and theUS, both countries absolutely nuts about sports and blessed with superbfacilities. As Qatar possesses none of the above, it seems to have outsmartedits bigger rivals by emphasizing being small.
Qatar promises to organize the most compact tournament ever.It will build or expand a total of 12 stadiums located within, at most, anhour’s drive, which will allow football fans to attend more than one game perday. Try doing that between New York and LA, or Sydney and Perth. In addition,once the 2022 world champion has been crowned, the stadiums’ upper tiers willbe removed and donated to countries that lack proper sport facilities. Theoffer is a novelty on ‘Planet Football’, one that was no doubt welcomed byFIFA’s poorer Asian and African representatives.
Qatar’s main weak point is, of course, the weather, as theWC traditionally takes place in summer. Previously, the FIFA technicalcommittee had considered the weather a potential health risk, not just forplayers and fans, but also for “officials and the FIFA family,” and requiredthat precautions should be taken.
To overcome this “slight” inconvenience, Qatar introducedanother novelty: to equip its stadiums with a solar-powered outdoorair-conditioning system that is able to keep the stadiums’ temperature at aconstant and comfortable 20-something degrees. Oh, and beer-drinking fans neednot worry. Qatari officials have promised that alcohol will be allowed inhotels and special outdoor “fan zones,” and they too will be connected to the“green” cooling system.
While most Qataris are no doubt proud and thrilled to hostthe 2022 football bonanza, some may question if building 12 stadiums andorganizing a WC is the best way of investing the country’s wealth. The stadiumsalone have a price tag of some $4 billion. South Africa in 2010 spent less thanhalf that amount, yet failed to record a profit as only two thirds of theprojected 450,000 visitors attended the games.
To the Qatari authorities however, money is not an issue.They think big and have more important things on their minds. Following the2022 WC, which has billions of viewers the world over, few people will still beunable to pinpoint Qatar on a world map. And there are other sport events tocome, such as the Asian Games, the Asian Cup in 2011, and, ultimately, theOlympics. Expect Qatar to be bidding for the ultimate dream in 2024 or 2028.
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist