Qatar achieves World Cup goal




The 2022 World Cup is sure to be a new soccer experience. Spectators are not just there to see high-tempo games but for the carnival-like atmosphere in the streets, where fans drink, dance and party as they cheer on their national team to sweep past its opponents to glory.

But soccer fans could be in for something starkly different in 2022, when the month-long tournament heads to Qatar, a tiny Gulf emirate with sweltering summers, conservative values and so few people that its entire population amounts to about half the 3.2 million people who attended the 2010 championship in South Africa.

The tiny emirate will be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament, which attracts millions of fans, billions of dollars and – if the event is staged without any serious hitches – enhances the global image of its host. But to be successful the emirate will have to contend with a host of challenges.

The Qataris are confident that they can pull it off. “I can personally promise that we will not let you down,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, the chairman of Qatar’s bid team, told a press conference last week after International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) awarded the World Cup to Qatar.

Held once every four years, the tournament is a pressure-cooker for the players, but how will they perform in the frying Qatari sun? Will games be won by the team whose players finish the game without all fainting?

Qatari temperatures are significantly higher than anything most players have ever experienced outside of a sauna. Summer temperatures reach a scorching 50-degrees-centigrade (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

Qatar’s answer is air conditioning, which is a more technically complicated solution than it appears because FIFA regulations require World Cup games be played under an open-roof stadium. Officials are confident they can build an arena exposed to the desert heat above and briskly cool on the playing field. Making the best of the country’s relentless sunlight, solar-powered air conditioners will provide a three-meter (10-foot) high layer of cool air at player level.

Indeed, a 500-seat mock-up facility was built earlier this year by Qatar to show FIFA officials that Qatari plan was more than a mirage.

“It’s not any type of miracle or anything,” engineer Jeff Willis, of Arup Associates, the architectural and engineering firm that built the stadium, told The Media Line. “It can be done.”

However, Willis acknowledged that full-scale stadiums of this sort for 50,000 spectators or more — and Qatar needs at least 10 of these for the World Cup — have never been built before.

While oil- and gas-rich Qatar doesn’t lack the money for this endeavor, some FIFA insiders remain skeptical about the air conditioned stadiums. Franz Beckenbauer, a legendary soccer figure who won the World Cup for Germany both as player (1974), and as a coach (1990), has speculated that the tournament could be shifted to the winter for the first time ever in the event’s history to avoid the heat.

“In January or February, you have a comfortable 25 degrees there,” Beckenbauer told German newspaper Bild. “Plans for the biggest leagues would have to change for 2022, but that would not be a major undertaking.”

A winter tournament, however, would come right in the middle of the European leagues’ season, which lasts from late August to May. Many find it hard to believe that the top European clubs and federations would accept a two-month hole in the season to let their players participate in the tournament. They would stand to lose millions of dollars. Players would return to their clubs to finish the season physically drained.

“It’s more or less impossible. If FIFA tried to force clubs to do that, they’d have a large-scale rebellion on their hands,” Stefan Szymanski, an economics professor at the City University of London, who has conducted research on the business side of the game, told The Media Line.

Then there are the fans. This will be the first World Cup played in the Arab world, an area many associate with terrorism and seen at times inhospitable to liberal Western behaviors. Qatar is also a short distance away from violence-torn Iraq and from Iran, with whom the West is conducting a war of nerves over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. That could scare off World Cup fans, most of who traditionally hail from Europe and the US.

Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics, a book exploring the sport through the lens of statistics and social science, said he wasn’t concerned. If Western fans stay home, their seats could be taken by fans from the Arab world. And, if Western spectators do come in huge numbers, experts say the risk of the World Cup being targeted by terrorists is no greater in Qatar than anywhere else.

“There are no security risks in Qatar that wouldn’t exist in other places. Any major event anywhere would be a target nowadays,” Gerd Nonneman, professor of Arab Gulf studies at Britain’s University of Exeter, told The Media Line.

But, fans aren’t just interested in the matches. They also come to party, mix with locals and generally have a good time. That might be tough to pull off in a conservative Muslim country where alcohol is banned save for a few hotels, and drinking and being drunk in public can land you in jail.

Nonneman said the Qatari authorities would never consider relaxing their alcohol ban— even temporarily— during the month-long tournament.

“Drinking is going to be something of an issue,” Nonneman speculated. “Not as many of the typical drinking buddies will go. But it will be a case of managing expectations. I don’t think it’ll be impossible.”

“The fans are going to be bussed from hotels to the games,” he added. “So they won’t be interacting with Qataris in their daily lives in ways that will be problematic.”

About three million fans typically flock to the World Cup, almost twice the country’s population of 1.7 million. When millions of soccer fans arrive, the country could see its population temporarily double, if not triple. Experts, however, said there was no temporary population explosion that money couldn’t contain.

“It’s enormously challenging,” said Nonneman. “It’ll be expensive, but money’s one thing they’re not short of.”

FIFA requires host countries to have 12 stadiums for the World Cup, but Qatar only boasts three, right now. It also lacks a completed public transportation system. The country will have to engage in a massive building project to construct more stadiums, and supply accommodations for the World Cup to meet fans’ needs.

Nonneman said that rather than build lots of hotel rooms that would become empty the day after the World Cup, Qatar would probably employ cruise ship anchored close to shore to house fans. The neighboring island kingdom of Bahrain would probably share in the soccer spoils, putting up many fans, as well.

If all those aren’t enough challenges, traditionally, a part of a successful World Cup is the host team’s advancing past the group matches.

Indeed, FIFA goes a long way to ensure that the host team stands a good chance of moving past the opening round by awarding the host team a top seed when the 32 competing teams are divided into eight groups of four.

In fact, only one host country has ever been knocked out in the first round when South Africa was knocked out early in last summer’s tournament. When the United States hosted the tournament in 1994, it progressed out of the opening stage for the first time since it made the semifinals in the very-first World Cup in 1930. Ranked 113th in FIFA’s official rankings, Qatar has never come close to qualifying for the World Cup. Moreover, none of its players compete in major European leagues.

Commentators say they aren’t concern. Even if the emirate doesn’t improve its soccer pedigree between now and 2022, Qatar can expect to bask in the global limelight as a place of progress and development as long as it successfully pulls off the tournament without a hitch.

“I don’t think it makes a difference anyway,” said Szymanski. “The exposure is about hosting the event, not competing in it.”

By BENJAMIN PEIM THE MEDIA LINE

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