x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

What Qatar got right in World Cup 2022 bid

Seismic victories for Russia and Qatar in capturing the 2018 and 2022 World Cups left rivals wondering where they had gone wrong. But that should not overshadow where the winners went right.

Qataris celebrate in the streets after the announcement that Qatar will host the 2022 football World Cup in Doha.
Qataris celebrate in the streets after the announcement that Qatar will host the 2022 football World Cup in Doha.

It was blindingly obvious, to those observing the finale of the battle of the World Cup venues, what Qatar had got right: a passion to win, unshakable self-belief, exciting answers to known drawbacks and a desire and ability to make history.

What the other candidates got wrong, leaving them on the sidelines as Russia and Qatar won the right to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, will be the subject of a great deal of navel-gazing in the days and weeks to come.

Nowhere is the inquest likely to be more intense than in England. The former Newcastle United and England captain Alan Shearer, now a regular football pundit for the BBC, was gracious enough in the depths of his own dejection to congratulate Russia on a "fantastic" bid. But the hunt for culprits to be blamed for a crushing defeat has already begun.

For the easy explanation, there is no need to look beyond the indignation felt by leading figures of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) at the conduct of the British media in the build-up to the vote in Zurich on Thursday.

The Sunday Times and the BBC's Panorama programme made separate allegations of corruption of the part of individual members on the executive committee. If this is what they are like when they want the tournament, you could just about hear the Fifa president Sepp Blatter thinking, how would they be once they were awarded it? Certainly, comments from some committee members after the vote suggested that these were issues firmly in mind as they approached their decision-making duties.

But if Qatar was able to succeed with its high-technology answers to the issue of June/July temperatures soaring to 40°C and beyond, surely it should have been possible for the England team's response to the media row - essentially distancing itself from the actions of meddling journalists - to have the same soothing effect.

And few would dispute that the England bid also exuded passion, self-assurance and even - coming from what Mr Blatter is fond of calling the "motherland of football" - more than a trace of history.

The failure of most of the other disappointed competitors - the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea losing out to Qatar for 2022, and the joint Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium bids finding themselves unable to match Russia's case for staging 2018 - seemed, at first glance, more readily understandable.

Australia apart, all had hosted either the World Cup or other major football tournaments within the past 30 years. Even so, there is anger in several of the unsuccessful countries that Fifa overlooked them in favour of contenders that had scored relatively poorly in the technical reports.

The Belgium/Netherlands bid for 2018 was always seen as rank outsider; one commentator suggested the economic woes of Spain and Portugal would produce an "austerity World Cup"; and a return to Japan or South Korea probably appeared all too hasty.

But the US - despite having hosted the 1994 event - and Australia feel particularly hard done by, having made highly attractive submissions. It is in those countries that a lot of people claim a World Cup in scorching hot Qatar is a debacle awaiting to happen. Concern about political instability in the Middle East and Russia is also a factor in critical reaction to the vote though, at such a distance from either tournament, it may not have weighed heavily on Fifa minds.

In any event, Qatar's performance in the vote was nothing short of extraordinary, leading the way comfortably in each of the first three rounds before beating the US by 14 votes to eight in the decisive fourth. It was, as has become clear in the warm response from the UAE, a major coup not only for one Gulf state but the region.

Doubts will linger about the conditions players and fans will face, but the committee was demonstrably persuaded by the promise that "all stadiums, training sites and fan zones will be at 27 degrees C, all solar-powered and 100 per cent carbon neutral". It is also unlikely that we have heard the last of the suggestions, strongly denied, of collusion between Qatar and the Spain/Portugal committee members.

On the face of it, England should have felt in with a serious shout for 2018. Or, expressed least controversially, in with a chance of seeing greater return on the money spent on mounting the bid than two votes, at £7.5m (Dh43m) apiece, from the 22-man executive committee. And one of those votes was England's in any case, that of the FA's member, Geoff Thompson.

With the "three lions" - Britain's prime minister David Cameron, plus the football-loving Prince William and the footballing superstar David Beckham - present and correct in Zurich, there was no lack of substance. Along with other great stars of the English game (Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, Sir Bobby Charlton), there was compelling testimony, in the film accompanying the final submission, from foreign footballing clout associated with Premier League, notably Arsene Wenger and Robert Mancini, French and Italian managers of Arsenal and Manchester City respectively.

Surely the collective weight of these luminaries of football was at least the equal of Qatar's winning cast list of stars headed by Zinedine Zidane, a man who may be hugely popular in France and around the world but is also remembered for ending his own career in explosive fashion, with a red card for violent conduct in the 2006 World Cup Final.

No wonder that such highly respected football writers as the London Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter were already talking, before the votes were cast in the Zurich Exhibition Centre, of the fallout that would follow an English defeat.

Winter described England's bid as easily the best on technical and economic grounds: abundant hotel accommodation, 13 stadiums ready for action already, massive proceeds from hospitality.

But in labelling the decision, one that would either transform or traumatise English football, he laid blame for the possibility of failure squarely at the door of England's own football authorities.

And writing after the votes had been cast, Winter said: "Recriminations now spill forth, about the timing of the Panorama programme alienating ExCo [Fifa executive committee] members, about the dysfunctional nature of the English footballing family that saw the bid fail to harness the power of the Premier League until well into the campaign. What defeat showed was that English football lacks leadership within the Football Association."

Winter's is not a lone voice. As England analyses its failure, summarily eliminated after securing no more than half the first-round votes that went to unfancied Belgium and the Netherlands, the role of footballing authorities, and that of the media, will indeed come under intense scrutiny.

But the vote has also left plenty of observers, including footballing figures associated with the bids of defeated nations, angry with Fifa.

Niall Quinn, the chairman of Sunderland AFC, one of the clubs that would have seen its stadium used, was among those demanding an inquiry. His call was echoed by the former England manager Graham Taylor and the former Australian international, Robbie Slater.

"What I hadn't bargained for is the politics of Fifa, and what I can't digest is that we went out in the first round," Quinn told his club's website. "If that happened then there certainly is something mysterious involved in the politics. If a bid of our strength can't get past the first round then we have to look at other reasons as to why it failed."

Andy Anson, the England bid leader, said his team had been lied to. "David Dein [the bid ambassador and former Arsenal vice-chairman], myself, David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William were looking people in the eye and asking them for their vote and being told 'yeah'," he told the BBC.

Taylor had similar grievances. "Fifa, as far as I'm concerned, is full of people who say 'yes' to your face and 'no' behind your back," he was quoted as saying. It was a body that answered to no one, governments included, and the time had come for it to be "really investigated".

Slater, now an Australian TV pundit, told his country's media of his dismay at pre-announcement leaks that Qatar had won. "We heard rumours that it had gone to Qatar and officials were embracing in lobbies. It does stink to be honest. I imagine there will be some inquiries into this."

Whether, or how, Fifa can be reformed is bound to become key focus of the wider post-vote debate.

Yet for those who feel that for all its faults and unwillingness to accept criticism, it may have reached at least respectable decisions this week, there is conspiracy-free way of rationalising the outcome.

The presence of strong bids from Qatar and Russia was an extension of the argument that football is no longer the preserve of nations with which it is historically associated. Handing them the prizes, on this theory, was a bold move to spread the universally adored game to countries that had never previously been trusted to stage it at its highest level.

Unless serious evidence emerges of malpractice at the heart of Fifa's voting process, Qatar and Russia's moments of glory may come to be seen as products of that revolution in the sport.

Both nations also enjoy the economic power to ensure that all the logistical needs of a great sporting occasion are met, and to offer lasting benefits. In the case of Qatar, that includes the ambitious commitment to dismantle brand new stadiums and relocate them in less privileged corners of the world. Both countries scored heavily with their pledges to provide infrastructure that was not there already.

And as both Moscow and Doha celebrate notable victories, it is difficult not to share the enthusiasm of the Qatar bid's president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, speaking with visible emotion a few hours after the vote. It was clearly not lost on him that his country's triumph had positive and broader implications for a region that has suffered more than a reasonable share of turmoil.

"I think this is exactly what the Middle East needs," he told a lurking journalist from CNN. "This touches people directly. It is not about politics, it is about happiness and enjoying the game, and this is the right place to do it. I believe that in the future, after 2022 perceptions of the Middle East will change entirely, and for the better."