x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Qatar is now a very serious contender to host World Cup

The country's bidding team lays on the charm as it aims to win the right to stage the greatest tournament in sport.

Brazilian players in training yesterday at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha ahead of tonight’s friendly against Argentina.
Brazilian players in training yesterday at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha ahead of tonight’s friendly against Argentina.

The 20kg coffee-table book Qatar submitted for its 2022 World Cup bid reposes encased in glass in an exhibit in a room chronicling the 50-year history of Qatari football.

Banners advertising the A-list friendly between Argentina and Brazil line boulevards in the capital.

The Aspire Dome, with a four-day sport forum halfway complete, boasts murals of famous athletes alongside quotations about surmounting obstacles from Pele, Michael Jordan and, yes, Confucius.

Just two weeks from learning whether the football fete three World Cups hence will go to Australia, Japan, South Korea, the United States or even Qatar, this country, slightly smaller than the 48th-largest US state (Connecticut), brims with bold hope.

Or, as Hassan al Thawadi, the bid chief executive, put it on Monday as the conference opened: "What was once a dark-horse candidate for the World Cup is a serious contender for the greatest tournament in sport."

And, as Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti International Olympic Committee member and president of the Olympic Council of Asia, told The Associated Press: "Qatar will have the highest votes in the first round. I believe this."

And, as Kevin Roberts, the editorial director of the London-based Sport Business Group, put it on Tuesday in a forum about the pros and cons of bidding: "You understand that this is a very real bid and a nation that wants to be taken seriously in sport."

Roberts spoke and took questions from the audience on a panel that, according to the event programme, would include al Thawadi, but al Thawadi did not appear and did not take questions after his address on Monday.

Some of his concerns do lie elsewhere.

In the United States, a Fifa executive member sniffed to The Wall Street Journal, "You can air-condition a stadium, but I don't see how you can air-condition an entire country," which some interpreted as recognition of Qatar's sturdy challenge to a bid the US thought it had strengthened by withdrawing from consideration for 2018.

In Switzerland, Fifa's ethics committee will have spent the first three days of the week in Zurich privately discussing possible ethics violations in the bidding for the two World Cups to be doled out on December 2.

In the meantime, banners all around blare the 2022 Qatar slogan - "Expect Amazing" - and organisers take journalists through a small building that rests upon the site of a former junkyard and houses the exhibition of the Qatar bid, replete with a dizzying three-walled video, the same exhibits Fifa's technical team saw on their visit in early October.

"They hadn't seen anything like it before," said Carmen Smith, the Qatar 2022 marketing director.

In a shopping mall next to the sprawling Aspire Stadium complex, stores peddled Brazil and Argentina shirts in windows and fans both Qatari and foreign lined up eight-to-10 deep to buy tickets from a claustrophobic booth.

The two squads held training sessions in the evening hours of yesterday, while the dome held an array of conferences including a well-attended session featuring reminiscences and discussions with famous tennis retirees Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase. Michael Johnson, the American Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter, sat in the audience.

They fielded questions from audience members - "He's the only player that I didn't have a [personal] problem with on or off the court," McEnroe said of his rival and friend Borg - as Borg and McEnroe awaited their seniors match they were scheduled to play last night at a stadium across town.

Beyond that, the schedule for today included a session with Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, as Qatar punctuates its intention to play in the biggest leagues.

"A World Cup in the Middle East is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone," al Thawadi had said in his address on Monday, emphasising the messages of peace and the bridging of religious differences, plus the possible creation of "1.35 million" new players in the region.

Al Thawadi added: "Bringing an event of this scale to the Middle East will change lives. Fifa's opportunity has arrived and we hope they will not pass it up."

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae