x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Judgement day for Qatar's World Cup bid

The Gulf nation finds out on Thursday if it will host football's biggest event.


The Gulf nation finds out on Thursday if it will host football's biggest event. Chuck Culpepper looks at how the bid has been handled and its merits

For a symbol, how about a junkyard. Where once reposed a junkyard, now there stands a sleek if nondescript white building. Much as the world might not notice wee Qatar or its capital Doha or even Doha's sprawling Aspire sport complex, your average passerby along the edges of that complex would not notice the unimposing structure that replaced the junkyard.

In the building, however, lie the audacious dreams of the leaders carrying on a muscular case of rethinking in a historically new country containing only about 240,000 Qataris among 1.6 million citizens. Through its rooms and its displays on Qatar's succinct 50-year-old football history strolled Fifa's technical group on their final stopover along the five-country tour of hopefuls for the 2022 World Cup.

In that building they even hid Zinedine Zidane in a closet. They brought him out at the end of a 20-minute, three-walled film advertising Qatar 2022.

"The whole time the Fifa delegation was walking around I had Zidane hidden in the cupboard," said Carmen Smith, speaking of the retired, 38-year-old, French football legend who is doubling as a Qatar 2022 ambassador. "Aw, he was a good sport. He had good humour about it. He said: 'Put me in the cupboard.'

"They were like: 'Did he just come out of the screen?' They couldn't work out where he came from. 'Is he a bit of a hologram?'"

As Qatar approaches next Thursday as a viable candidate for the second of the two World Cups Fifa will award in Zurich, as it tests its nimble muscularity against the economic Godzilla United States and the athletic Godzilla Australia plus Japan and South Korea, it already has notched one feat.

With its compactness, its small population and its big heat, it has forged a rethinking of the very concept of a World Cup. With its hopes for a World Cup in the Middle East, its visions of futuristic cooling technology and its plans to dismantle, transport and reassemble stadiums in needier lands, it has forged a bit of a rethinking of life in general. It even has annexed an unwanted adornment that smacks of the big time when it surmounted corruption charges after Fifa found no evidence of collusion.

"Qatar as a bid is certainly challenging because it challenges so many preconceptions of what a World Cup should be, what it should look like," said Kevin Roberts, the editorial director of the London-based Sport Business Group.

"What the bid has done is to help change perceptions about Qatar, and if it wins it, it will radically change the perceptions about Qatar," said Nick Bitel, the sports law expert and chief executive of the London Marathon.

"They have a vision of what they can make Doha, what Qatar can be like," said a certain Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, calling the vision "achievable".

"They do have their own vision, and it is not only for hosting the World Cup for the games," said Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatar-born president of the Asian Football Confederation.

Carla Pereira, a Qatar-based Brazilian physiotherapist, relayed a bit of a running joke about her country of residence versus her country of origin. She said that if Qatar did pull off the upset and snare the World Cup for 2022, it might well complete its vast preparations - new airport, new metro system, funky new cooled stadiums - before Brazil can complete its for the World Cup already granted for 2014. "They do make a big show," she said.

The kind of rethinking that would cure a junkyard does not blare at you even on a loud night with thick traffic two Wednesdays ago as the national sides from Argentina and Brazil played a friendly in Doha.

It turns up in the little glass cases showing designs for 12 stadiums -right down to the miniature palm trees and cars - with names such as Umm Slal, Qatar University, Doha Port, Al-Khor, Al-Shamal, Al-Wakrah, Education City, Al-Rayyan, Al-Gharafa and Lusall Iconic.

It shows up in the slogan - "Expect Amazing," chosen from 20 slogan candidates - and in the sayings plastered on the walls of the dome, such as this from Confucius: "Our greatest glory is not of never failing, but in rising every time we fall."

And it dots the film, whose boasts would change the margins of human history. It tells of a new airport in which "even on the busiest days of World Cup travel there will be capacity to spare. No waits, no crowds, no delays". It warbles about a new outdoors in which "each route between metro stop and venue will be fully shaded and thoroughly cooled." It even states its intention to sate that most formidable of beasts when it crows, "media will find their expectations exceeded," which would come as landmark given that finicky lot.

Flinging around the fashionable word "sustainability," promising no "carbon footprint," Qatar 2022 maturely has not shied from confronting at least two of the three worries that give pause to the world and to a Fifa technical report of mid-November that fretted over the heat and the compactness.

Regarding the unmitigated sun of June and July and showing photographs that do not conjure the word "arable", the film narrates (with a female voice), "our homeland can be harsh and unforgiving". Yet ancestors weathered it: "Taking only what we needed, we cared for the land and managed carefully the abundant resources beneath our feet." Besides, there is ample company: "A third of the world's inhabited land mass shares similar climate conditions of our homeland."

Said Ferguson: "But they seem to have a control of that, seem to know where they're going with that, which is interesting. If anybody was in Johannesburg for the World Cup, you're freezing. Where would you rather be? Johannesburg's cold in the nighttime."

Roberts, stressing that bidding countries for any event need sturdy story lines to rebut foreign concerns, said of Qatar's obstacles: "It has provoked an absolutely brilliant narrative from the bid team. It's there that we have the development of this cooling technology."

In a daydream diary of the prospective day of Thursday, June 16, 2022, amid such visions as a scoreboard showing Germany 0, Qatar 2, the film depicts future stadiums during matches and reminds: "The micro-climate remains cool and comfortable."

The heat alone, as everyone knows, could tilt Fifa's decision.

"I think it's too hot," said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University in England. "I think the climate is an issue, a serious issue."

Battling the less-fierce heat of November on his visit to Doha to appear on panels at the Aspire4Sport conference left him more than wary of June and July. "From the outside looking in I was more optimistic for it," he said. "I think that it deserves a strong shot. I would be less optimistic than I was a week ago. I've got glasses that tint and still my eyes have been hurt. And I think a lot of Europeans will be shocked at just how hot it is."

For the potential obstacle of national smallness, Qatar 2022 again aimed its address head-on. Its promises of the "first-ever compact Fifa World Cup" come as a drastic rethinking and spawn an array of appeals within the film. A sampling: "And wherever you have been, it's always a quick journey home." "No need to move from hotel to hotel or host city to host city."

And the enticing: "Think of what you can do with all that extra time."

With only one venue more than 60 miles away from the centre and all the others within 30 miles, fans might see several matches in a day. Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager, appears and says: "As a coach or a player, the more the travel, the more hours in hotels, the long distances, is very, very tiring."

Folded into that concern is the potential albatross of 12 stadiums lying around a tiny country after a one-month event, but Qatar 2022 went right at that with its Fifa audience. "We have understood the concern of too many stadiums in a small country," it began.

With that came the plan for the modular, removable stadiums, another concept Roberts lauds as potentially beneficial as a general world concept. With Fifa's cooperation, the stadiums would disappear and then reappear in countries that crave them, an idea that enthralled the hard-to-please soul of a Manchester United manager.

"A key card, that one," Ferguson said. "I think that will pull on the heartstrings of everyone. To transport the stadiums to countries that need them. That's very clever."

Left mostly unaddressed in the presentation are the cultural concerns about the traditional World Cup lifestyle that involves considerable amounts of beer.

As one local pundit put it: "What will they do if one Brazilian woman on the Corniche starts dancing in a bikini?" And as Chadwick said: "I think there's a cultural issue in a sense there will be people turn up in the street wanting to drink beer and eat pizza. And I think it will be very, very difficult to control that."

Intoned the film: "A large part of a person's character is defined by how well he or she treats guests."

Moving toward next Thursday with support from all around the Gulf and points beyond, then, Qatar will match its boons and burdens with those of, among others, the US, the early favourite with its own boons and burdens. Hassan Al Thawadi, the bid's chief executive officer, maintained that awarding "an event of this scale to the Middle East will change lives," and that "Fifa's opportunity has arrived and we hope they will not pass it up."

Bin Hammam said: "I believe really strongly in the right to host the World Cup in this part of the world. But to win or not to win? This is an election now. I cannot predict."

Whatever comes of that moment, though, the people who study these things deem the rethinking valuable on its own, especially for a country that already has held an Asian Games and parts of Asian Cups, will hold the January 2011 football Asian Cup and figures to hold more things forthcoming.

"Irrespective of whether Qatar wins the bid or not," Roberts said, "I can't help but think the process going through the bid will boost future bids of all types.

"It certainly has raised the bar on the whole business of bidding right around the world," he said, as well as expanded the vision of a reshaped future even in junkyards.