x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Let the big World Cup rehearsal begin ...

With 2022 in mind, the world will be watching Qatar's Asian Cup.

A banner promoting the Qatar 2022 World Cup adorns a building in Doha as the city prepares to host the Asian Cup.
A banner promoting the Qatar 2022 World Cup adorns a building in Doha as the city prepares to host the Asian Cup.

Game On. That seems to be the catchphrase of the Asian Cup in Qatar, emblazoned in bold across giant posters adorning most of the glitzy, modern towers in the Qatar capital.

The face of one of the prominent Doha hotels, though, is still plastered with an image of Frank de Boer, the former Holland captain, promoting Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup.

"Winning is not everything, it is the only thing," it says, rather prophetically because the country's bid did eventually triumph, ahead of Australia and the United States.

The Fifa decision was made just over a month ago and Qatar's win has increased the country's profile. The Asian Cup, which begins tonight with the hosts taking on Uzbekistan, has turned into the first official trailer, or a teaser, of the mega event to follow.

The weather and the facilities, fans and the country's culture will all be under scrutiny over the next three weeks as 16 of the continent's footballing nations battle to match Iraq's fairy-tale triumph four years ago.

Louis van Gaal, the no-nonsense coach of Bayern Munich, has given his thumbs up to the football facilities available in the country, but believes they still need to put the infrastructure in place.

"The facilities here are very good," said the Dutchman, who is in Doha with his team during the winter break in Germany. "We train at the Aspire Academy and it is fantastic. Even the people are fantastic.

"The moment we leave the pitch after training, the ground staff get on the turf and start working. So that attitude is really nice. The problem is, there is no hotel near Aspire and we have travel a long distance to get there every day. It is tough on the players.

"But there is still 11 years before the World Cup and I am sure the country will be ready for the tournament. They have the right attitude and people."

The existing venues will be put to the test in the coming days, particularly tonight when a full house is expected at the 40,000-capacity Khalifa Stadium for the opening ceremony and first match.

However, Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president, has no doubt this will be the best tournament in Asian Cup history.

"You will see the changes in the competition and how we have improved over the past eight years," said Bin Hammam, a Qatari, who was yesterday re-elected in his role at the AFC.

"It has been a great effort by everyone and I'm sure it will be the best tournament ever and be the model for future events."

Tokuaki Suzuki, the AFC's competitions director, said this will be the most high-profile Asian Cup because of Qatar's involvement in the 2022 World Cup.

"The world will be watching, but I am confident the Qatar Local Organising Committee (LOC), together with the AFC, can prove, through the success of this competition, that the 2022 World Cup will be a success," he said.

"We have tried to make this Asian Cup the best ever on the organisational side. On the organisational side, we have made sure the teams have access to the best facilities for training and transportation.

"Our target is not just to have the best ever Asian Cup, but our target is to achieve the high standards of Fifa and Uefa competitions. I am confident we can achieve this through this tournament and prove our abilities to the world."

The confidence is visible in the LOC as well. Issa Mohammed al Ishaq, the deputy director of communication and marketing, believes they have ticked all the boxes for the players and fans to have a great time in Qatar.

"I believe the emphasis for now should be on the AFC Asian Cup and the not the 2022 World Cup," he said.

"If you notice, eight of the 16 countries competing here are from the surrounding region, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and also the other Arab countries.

"Fans from these countries will definitely be coming to Qatar to support their teams. We have also made a few programmes to enable our friends within the other countries, such as Japan, the two Koreas and Australia.

"For example, the Indian team is participating. As everybody is aware, the Indians are a big part of the community in Gulf states in general. So we have made arrangements for the Indian community in the Gulf to visit Qatar by facilitating their visas. They can go to the website of the government and obtain a visa to visit here."

Joseph Donohue, head of the LOC's media department, said: "We are ready. We are ready to host Asia's most exciting football tournament. As you have probably seen, the entire city is dressed out in Asian Cup images. Doha is alive with colour."

However, Vadim Abramov, a Uzbekistan, wants officials to wait before they pass their judgment on the tournament.

"The facilities are great here, but we can talk about the success of the tournament only after the finals," he said. "What they are doing before, it is all nice. Everything is OK. But people will remember the football. They will be happy if the football is good. So it will be the games that matter."

And if things don't go as well as planned, they have 11 years to work things out before the World Cup.