The latest news and opinion from the East
It might seem unrealistic but the fuel-rich emirate has reasons to be optimistic, says Matthias Krug
A team combining the creative impulses of Zinedine Zidane, the tactical nous of Pep Guardiola, the attacking vision of Ronald de Boer and the deadly finishes of Gabriel Batistuta would seem to be quite an unbeatable combination in their prime playing days.
Now those finest footballers of their generation have been united for an altogether different cause. But for once they aren’t favorites to walk away winners. They want to bring the World Cup to the Middle East for the first time ever.
Of all the nine bidders hoping to be named a World Cup host in just a few weeks time in Zurich, Qatar is perhaps the most underestimated. This is surely an unfair assessment.
The other four nations in the bidding for the 2022 tournament – Australia, Japan, South Korea and the USA – are all more renowned in the Western world view of things. But apart from Australia and Qatar, the other bidders have each hosted the tournament rather recently, which would give these two bidders an advantage if FIFA continues with its policy of attempting to spread the appeal of the game around the world.
In the wake of South Africa’s successful summer experience, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has already come out with comments encouraging the prospect of a first ever World Cup in the Arab world. Ronald de Boer struck the same chord when I talked to him in one of Qatar’s stadiums shortly after he was announced as one of the bid ambassadors for Qatar 2022.
“I believe this will be a great opportunity to foster understanding between the Middle East and the Western world," said the former Barcelona and Rangers midfielder. "I think there have been a lot of misunderstandings and I believe football always brings the best out of people.”
So the key bid-winning message is already firmly in place, just as it was for the World Cup editions in South Africa or in South Korea and Japan, the first Asian World Cup. This is to be the tournament of the Middle East. But in for many sceptical Western observers, the gas-rich Gulf nation is also the most unknown prospect of all the bidders.
To me at least, Qatar’s bid is the most familiar of the nine on offer. Having been born and raised in the Qatari capital Doha, I witnessed from close quarters the astonishing sports development undergone in the past two decades on the small peninsula by the balmy Arabian Sea.
From hosting the FIFA Youth World Cup some 15 years ago to being named the host nation for this January’s 2011 Asian Cup, the World Cup dream has always floated like a tempting mirage across the desert sands.
In between, football in Qatar has taken on a new depth and breadth; from the creation of a superlative youth academy in the heart of Doha to the world’s largest scouting project – Aspire Academy’s “Football Dreams”, headed by the man who discovered Lionel Messi.
And it's not all pipe-dreams, as proven by the home team’s gold-medal performance at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. That day, the Al Sadd stadium seemed to hold the entire cosmopolitan nation with its many expatriate residents as the home side defeated Iraq 1-0 to the noisy backdrop of traditional drumming and chanting.
But a more spectacular piece of news was already on the horizon.
As the Doha-based journalist who first broke the news of Qatar’s intentions, I've witnessed the development of the World Cup bid. “Qatar has a very good chance of hosting the World Cup," Qatar Football Association (QFA) General Secretary Saud Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi told me. "Of course it is going to be very tough, but we have a very good chance. We will work hard on the bid and prepare very well and then we will be well placed when the official bidding begins.”
The Qataris have worked hard indeed, bringing on board their glitzy crop of bid ambassadors, all of whom have played in the Qatari league except Zidane – on board partly for his Arab origins, partly for his World Cup-winning superstar status.
They have also developed an ambitious mosaic of stadiums which would use solar power energy to cool the stadiums, with designs which incorporate the most traditional elements of Arabian heritage and seem indeed something out of a thousand and one nights.
But following the bidding build-up closely over the past year or so, I’ve often come across variations of the same sceptical Western complaints: but Qatar is too small, but they don’t allow alcohol, and what kind of a World Cup would that be without being able to celebrate adequately?
The Qataris have already said that they are willing to allow alcohol at the finals, and promise to make their small size and hot summers an advantage by providing the most compact tournament ever – in regulated temperatures.
This may be insufficient to answer some of the doubters of the Qatari bid, which has spared no expenses in its publicity project and currently runs an advertising spree in Spain’s much viewed La Liga championship, not to mention Sky Sports in the UK.
Perhaps the best way to answer the sceptics is by turning the question on its head: but is the Western World Cup the only way to celebrate the world’s favorite game? The World Cup in South Africa proved that this is not the case.
Now all of Qatar is once again preparing their maroon and white flags for the decision day on December 2. The vote-swapping allegations certainly need clearing up beforehand, but they also show that the Arabian and Iberian bids are being taken very seriously by their rivals.
The Middle East is fast becoming a highly influential region in world football, a fact underlined by the vast amounts of money which the region is prepared to invest in the game and has already done in big-money takeovers of clubs in Europe. That’s all fine and well.
But now the focus must be on development at home. Turn back the clock some 12 years. Zidane's wonderful headers give France a first-ever World Cup triumph. Ecstatic celebrations ensue with Zidane’s picture being beamed across the centre of Paris.
Can you imagine the same scenario being repeated in a country in North Africa – Zidane’s ancestral Algeria, perhaps – or the Middle East? No? Maybe the question about Qatar’s highly ambitious 2022 bid should not be why, but rather: why not?
Matthias Krug is a football writer with international experience writing for the likes of ESPN Soccernet and Al Jazeera International
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