x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The bid that carries the hopes of the Arab world

Is the Middle East ready to host a World Cup? With its proposal for the tournament's 22nd staging in 2022 submitted to Fifa and under review, Qatar certainly believes so.

A visitor admires a model of one of the new stadiums to be built in Qatar for their 2022 World Cup bid  at the unveiling of their designs  in Dubai last month.
A visitor admires a model of one of the new stadiums to be built in Qatar for their 2022 World Cup bid at the unveiling of their designs in Dubai last month.

Every four years, nations from each of Fifa's six global confederations contest the World Cup. At 80 years old, it has become the world's most-watched single-sports event. However, one - albeit unsurprising - statistic detracts from the World Cup's quintessentially global boast: it has never been staged in the Middle East or Oceania regions.

Of the 17 tournaments since the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, three were held in South America, 10 in Europe and three in North America, while a joint Japanese-South Korean collaboration in 2002 represents the sole Asian showcase. On June 11, the World Cup's maiden African adventure, its 19th in total, will cross another continent off Fifa's list and cement the latest landmark in the legacy of Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president.

Teams, supporters and advertisers from around the world will be present in South Africa. The tournament is all-inclusive, except in terms of where it has been staged. Qatar is trying to change that. Following Brazil's 2014 tournament and the widely expected return to Europe in 2018, a Middle East-Australia-United States-Asia hosting battle is on the 2022 cards. Few football observers are predicting that the Gulf state will fend off Australia and Japan when Fifa's council votes on the host nation on December 2, but Blatter's mandate to spread the game globally could yet see the region welcome the world's football elite in 12 years' time.

Qatar's hopes were given a boost last month when Blatter was quoted as saying the Arab world "deserved" to get a World Cup - but the other contenders were too busy orchestrating their own campaigns to let that bother them. Their backup literature alone takes a lot of lifting. When the bidders delivered their technical documents to Fifa earlier this month, England's bid book ran to 1,752 pages. The US team - with the nation's former president, Bill Clinton, firmly onside - shipped five volumes of 1,250 pages each. Russia had 1,100 pages in its three-volume tome. Australia's offering was a mere 760 pages, but it was distinctively bound in kangaroo leather.

The written sales pitches were accompanied by some heavy hitters. Among them were Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit, the Dutch greats leading the Netherlands-Belgium joint bid team, while Vitaly Mutko, Russia's sports minister, headed their delegation, saying "the World Cup should go to new nations, and open new frontiers." Hassan al Thawadi, the chief executive of Qatar's 2022 bid, echoes that sentiment - but with Qatar and the Middle East being the beneficiaries. "President Blatter has always been a visionary and he has always recognised the power of football," said the man who studied law at Sheffield University in England and who is the legal brain behind the powerful Qatar Investment Authority.

"He's always recognised that football is not just a sport, it is a vessel which if guided in the right direction can have a positive impact on different elements of every day life. "Fifa has been a pioneer in sending out messages and bringing big events to different parts of the world and I'm very confident that, by December, Fifa will realise the significance of the technological, social and global aspects of bringing the World Cup to Qatar."

There are, of course, hurdles. The stifling summer heat is one. As is the array of potential cultural impasses which could occur when hundreds of thousands of foreign fans descend on the Islamic state. It is hard, for example, to imagine the alcohol-swigging fans who besieged German town squares four years ago enjoying similar freedom in Doha. But Qatar's size - at 11,437 square kilometres, the entire country could fit comfortably into Yorkshire, England's largest county, or Connecticut, America's third-smallest state - is an asset.

Abundant natural resources are funding the country's "National Vision 2030" programme, an ambitious investment initiative to develop transport and tourism infrastructure in time for 2022 and what al Thawadi has dubbed football's first "compact" World Cup. A work in progress at present, Qatar, insisted al Thawadi, will be ready in 12 years. "I think it is our turn; it is time to pass on the mantle to the Middle East. I know we are ready to host a World Cup," he said. "Whether it is in terms of hosting international events or participating in them, we have a track record that shows we are ready to host big events. And not only successfully, but with unique and innovative twists. In terms of abilities, facilities and passion, the region has it all."

Qatar wants Fifa to consider the role that a first "Islamic" World Cup could play in addressing global misconceptions of the Arab and Muslim world. The game, al Thawadi believes, can institute international change. "Unfortunately, there are misconceptions out there about the Middle East," he said. "I've had friends at university who wanted to come to Qatar and their parents were apprehensive, even scared about their children visiting.

"When people come they are always surprised at what they find; it's that first visit which turns misconceptions around. It's going to be difficult to reach the general public simply by having visitors over a 20-to-30-year period who go home and preach the word - misconceptions will remain. "The World Cup would be a very powerful catalyst to erase misconceptions about the Arab world and it would also help change misconceptions that regional people have about the outside world.

"When you host people and have an interaction of festivities over a 30-day period, what ends up happening is that everyone understands each other more - at the very least they converse. Al Thawadi's opinion was endorsed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the bid's chairman. "Sport is a platform to allow people to create understanding between cultures," Sheikh Mohammed said. "Part of hosting any big sport event is allowing people to come, to greet them and treat them like they are our neighbours. The idea is to create a lasting bond."

Qatar's proposed modular World Cup stadiums - which would be dismantled and given to developing countries after the tournament - would fuse traditional Arabian motifs and state-of-the-art design. The hope is that the philanthropic architecture will secure Fifa's hearts and minds in the same way that Qatar's new cooling technologies, which will maintain on-pitch temperatures in the optimum playing range of 26-29°C, have ended the summer heat debate, at least from the point of view of the players and fans inside the stadium.

But would a combined bid using all of the region's world-class sporting facilities not strengthen Qatar's case? Co-host bids are nothing new for Fifa, but Qatar is determined to go it alone. "It goes without saying that when the entire GCC combines and joins forces, whether it is for a particular bid or something general, it is a very powerful candidate," al Thawadi said. "But to be honest, we looked at our ability to host a World Cup and Fifa's views on co-hosting and putting both together we realised we had the facilities, passion and experience."

The opportunity for Fifa and its global commercial partners to reach relatively untapped regional markets, as well as untold riches in India - possibly the last major unconvinced football territory - represent a core foundation of Qatar's bid. Among the other positive aspects Qatar is emphasising about its bid are the internationally beneficial kick-off times the event would bring. "Fifa is commercially savvy and knows it has a great product," al Thawadi said. "Being centrally located globally, we can touch the majority of viewers. In Germany in 2006, the statistics showed that 34 per cent of the viewers were Asian, with Europe the next largest audience. We are ideally situated to cater to both continents' TV viewers.

"Let's not forget you also have the Indian sub-continent adjacent to us. It is a huge market where football is still trying to develop itself. I can only see positives coming out of a World Cup on its doorstep." The chief attraction, however, is fostering improved football standards - from playing to marketability - in the Middle East. "The region has a vibrant economy which is developing significantly," al Thawadi said. "That in itself is an opportunity - the Middle East is an untapped market where football is played in every single alleyway, but it has not been commercially developed.

"The Middle East and North Africa population will double to 400 million people in the next decade, with over a half of the figure being under 24. The young generation will be the fans, the audience and the customers of Fifa and football. "The World Cup will incentive Arabs across the region to improve the level of football and being in the spotlight will develop the regional game in many ways, it will make it more commercially savvy, help develop grassroots and even improve the refereeing standards."

With Japan, one of six bidders eyeing either the 2018 or 2022 tournament, deciding earlier this month - on guidance from Fifa - to focus solely on 2022, much of Qatar's chances of success will hinge on a European bid winning the 2018 race. "The reality is that is if the tournament doesn't go to Europe in 2018, the likelihood of it going there in 2022 is significantly increased," al Thawadi said. "It's a matter of looking at the environment right now and examining what's being said. Everyone is in agreement that the World Cup has to go to Europe in 2018."

Qatar's ambition is aided by a strong roster of official bid ambassadors. Prominent figures in the game, such as Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, Gabriel Batistuta, the Argentine striker, and Ronald de Boer, the former Dutch international, have been recruited to spread the word. Having seen his country's bid graduate from token contender to genuine candidate, al Thawadi is confident history will be made in December. "I'm biased, there are no doubts about that, but I truly believe in the Qatar 2022 bid," he said.

It will also have not gone unnoticed by Blatter than the bid was given a ringing endorsement by Lothar Matthaeus, the captain of the German 1990 World Cup winning team. "It is being held in Africa for the first time," he told the Qatar Tribune. "Asia too had its chance in 2002. Now that Qatar is ready to host the event it should be given the chance. Qatar has also got the money to host the event successfully. The economic might of Qatar is hard to ignore."