More than a year since Qatar was awarded the 2022 finals, and with the ten-year countdown about to begin, the question is still asked; is this tiny desert state the right place to stage a World Cup?
Sir Dave Richards stepped into the debate – and an ornamental fountain pool – last week with his comments about FIFA’s bidding process and the thorny question of alcohol availability in a strict Muslim country.
It did English football no favours that the controversial remarks came from a man who is both chairman of the Premier League and the FA’s international committee. Both bodies were quick to distance themselves from his criticism of FIFA and Qatar, and Sir Dave issued apologies the following day, ironically via Al-Jazeera and Sky, who may be bidding against each other for Premier League television rights in the next wave of negotiations.
His comments brought the debate back to the fore, however. Did the way FIFA conducted their process mean the FA wasted a lot of time and money bidding to host the 2018 finals? And is Qatar a suitable venue for the 2022 finals?
On the first point, Sir Dave was somewhat misguided in his comments about FIFA’s desire to have a World Cup in the Gulf, especially as England were bidding to host a different finals, which went to another European country Russia. But it has to be said that FIFA did acknowledge that the idea of combining the bidding for two finals into one process was flawed and would be changed in the future.
In terms of Qatar’s suitability to host the world’s most popular sporting event, the debate will probably go on until the final whistle is blown after the final in 2022.
What I would say is, having been to the country half-a-dozen times over the past six years, the rate of growth is phenomenal on so many levels. The economy and infrastructure are advancing at a rapid rate, unlike anywhere else in the world. Whereas there were a handful of western hotels in 2006, there are already dozens now and will be ample in time for the World Cup. This is a country that is growing fast, where money is no object and the empty desert presents a blank sheet of paper in terms of planning and development.
The liberalisation of Qatar is moving at a more gradual pace, with the young and dynamic leadership of the 2022 World Cup committee aware that a fundamental change in attitudes needs to take place over generations rather than in a few years. But even though Qatar has gas and oil reserves to last well into the second half of the 21st century, there is an urgency to move from a hydrocarbon economy to a knowledge-based economy, as Hassan al-Thawadi pointed out at the conference in which Sir Dave Richards made his ill-fated comments.
It was hosted by the International Centre for Sport Security, a body set up last year with Qatar conscious of the importance of corporate social responsibility in sport. Conference topics covered doping, security, economic impact, hooliganism, fan culture, and growth.
And in it the growth of football in Qatar is there for all to see. From walking the streets of Doha and talking to local residents and expats alike, it is clear that football has taken off in the past year or so. One sports shop in the mall next to Sir Dave’s hotel had a huge window display for the new England kit, and inside the big Premier League and La Liga kits were on sale. The staff were mostly Arsenal fans, they said, but Chelsea’s shirts were the best sellers. The locals were all up to speed with events in English and European football. The day after Sir Dave’s ill-judged remark that the Qataris should not ‘bury their heads in the sand’ over the issue of alcohol, I was sitting in a sports bar, with multiple TV screens and cold beer on tap, watching Manchester’s big two crash out of the Europa League.
Clearly there are major issues still to address, such as safety and comfort of players and spectators in the summer heat, although Qatar is still willing to move the finals to winter if FIFA requested it and the European Leagues allowed it, another thorny issue.
Questions will remain, and critics may be unswerving, but it was interesting to see Danny Jordaan, who faced similar scepticism ahead of the 2010 finals in South Africa, speaking in support of Qatar. He said he spent years fending off doubts and criticism that the 2010 World Cup would not be ready, or would be a disaster. It was, as all who were there would agree, a resounding success, and Jordaan believed Qatar would triumph in the same way.
Do we share that belief?
Gerry Cox is one of England’s leading football writers and former Chairman of the Football Writers’ Association. He has covered well over 1000 matches including four World Cups and four European Championships. He currently runs the Hayters Sports reporting agency and writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
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