x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Qatar has hosted tougher competition in past

World Cup 2022? A walk in the park for Qatar, compared to where it has been.

Saeed Owairan, of Saudi Arabia, right, is challenged by Gyongil Kim, of North Korea, during their 1993 World Cup qualifying match. Shaun Botterill / Allsport
Saeed Owairan, of Saudi Arabia, right, is challenged by Gyongil Kim, of North Korea, during their 1993 World Cup qualifying match. Shaun Botterill / Allsport

World Cup 2022? A walk in the park for Qatar, compared to where it has been. Lots of logistics to solve in the 11 years ahead, and tens of billions of dirhams in infrastructure and stadiums, but that's just money. Once the tournament kicks off, bang, there it goes, rolling downhill on its own giddy global momentum. Ask South Africa.

The tiny Gulf nation successfully staged a much more problematic tournament in 1993, an event little noticed outside Asia, seen in person by nearly no one and barely recalled less than 18 years later. I remember it, however, as the queerest event I have reported upon in more than three decades in journalism.

In October of 1993, Fifa's continental federations were busy deciding who deserved to advance to the 1994 World Cup in the United States, an exciting time in football but a troubled one in the political environment of Asia.

By an unhappy chance, the final six competitors for the Asian Football Confederation's two berths were Iraq, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan. (The UAE finished second to Japan in Group F, one goal short of making the final six.)

And we say "unhappy chance" not as a criticism of any particular footballing nation, but because of the sensitive geopolitical baggage that this particular sextet brought with them to Doha.

Consider the Far East trio. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945, and its hegemony was not recalled fondly on the peninsula.

And the two Koreas were (and remain) divided by the most heavily fortified border in the world, the point where the Korean War of 1950-53 paused, but not before the deaths of more than 2.2 million soldiers and 2.5 million civilians.

The three finalists from west Asia had tragic recent history, as well. Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein, who had ordered an invasion of Iran in 1980 that led to an eight-year war and at least 500,000 dead. Iraq in 1990 had occupied Kuwait, only to be ejected by a US-led coalition that attacked into Iraq from Saudi territory. Also, Iran and Saudi Arabia were something less than friendly at the time.

Into this quicksand of political enmity stepped Qatar. "One of the reasons we picked Qatar," said Peter Velappan, the general secretary of the AFC in 1993, "was that we wanted to keep politics from coming ashore on the beach."

Remarkably, the event, comprising 15 matches in 15 hectic days, was a thorough success. Yes, there were strange moments and unhappy participants, inevitable given that only two of the six nations would advance to the World Cup.

Thousands of joyful Saudis invaded the pitch when Ahmed Madani scored in the final minute to secure a crucial tie with South Korea; Qatari police needed almost an hour to escort them off the field and tightened security thereafter.

Iraq fired their coach after one match, and the new manager, Ammu Baba, hinted at the tyranny of working for a federation overseen by Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, when he said: "This is very important and very scary. ... If my team wins and goes on to the United States, I get the laurel. If we lose, I get the stick."

Uday Hussein earned a reputation for torturing sportsmen who disappointed him.

Iran and Iraq each expressed concern that the US was pulling strings behind the scenes to keep them from advancing; at the time, the US was not issuing visas to citizens from either country. Iraqi officials, however, exhorted their players with calls to "win a passport to Uncle Sam's country" by qualifying. To the credit of the Iran and Iraq footballers, they played a spirited but sportsmanlike match, won by Iraq 2-1.

As the final three matches went off, concurrently, on October 28, only North Korea had been eliminated. Fortunes waxed and waned as three clocks ticked towards 90 minutes. With one minute to play, Saudi Arabia and Japan were bound for their first World Cup finals. The Saudis hung on to defeat Iran 4-3, but Japan conceded an extra-time goal to Iraq to create a tie that lifted South Korea into the second Asia berth and left the Japanese weeping.

In Japan, the event is still known as the "Agony of Doha". But if the heartfelt tears of 11 Japanese footballers are the saddest legacy of a strange but efficient and peaceful 15 days, Qatar already in 1993 was showing a knack for pulling off one of the sport's complicated events.