Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup finals is Fifa's most dangerous move yet
Amid the wreckage and fall-out in Zurich on Thursday of another failed England World Cup bid, the most remarkable global story of the day was surely Fifa’s decision for the 2022 tournament.
It prompted president Sepp Blatter to enthusiastically declare that the World Cup would be going “to new lands” but, in selecting Qatar, Fifa have made arguably the most controversial – and risky - decision even in their history.
Some facts. At 1.6 million, the entire population of Qatar is around one fifth the size of London. During the summer months of June and July when the tournament will be held, the average daytime temperature is a sweltering 40°C. The Qatar national football team is currently ranked 113th in the world and has never played in a World cup. None of the stadiums are yet ready, while the city (Lusail) that will host the World Cup final is still being built.
Qatar is not so much starting from a blank canvas as a blank desert.
This uncertainty was enough for Fifa’s technical bid inspectors to grade Qatar “high” in overall operational risk. Yet at the end of a process when having existing infrastructure seemed like a disadvanatage, England were not the only delegation leaving Fifa House with some pointed observations. "I don't quite understand what factor is favorable," said Kuniya Daini, Japan's Football Association vice-chairman.
Jack Reilly, of the Australia Football Federation, had a theory. "The Qatar delegation have been pushing money around for a long period of time," he said.
With its vast gas and oil reserves, Qatar will surely be the wealthiest nation to have ever hosted a World Cup. And an extraordinary programme of spending will now commence.
Projected by the International Monetary Fund to have the world’s fastest-growing economy, Qatar plans to spend $100 billion on infrastructure projects between now and 2015. In that period, the country will construct a $25 billion rail network, an $11 billion airport, a $5.5 billion deep water seaport and a $1 billion crossing to link the new airport with projects in the northern part of Doha, the capital city. An additional $20 billion will also be spent on building new roads.
With such vast resources, words of reassurance could be provided by Qatar bid president Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani. “We won't let you down. You will be proud of us, proud of the Middle East,” he said.
One enormous difference for players and fans compared to any previous World Cup will be the issue of travel. Qatar is the smallest nation to stage the World Cup since Uruguay in 1930, with 10 out of its 12 stadiums located within a 30 kilometre radius. Indeed, once a new metro system is operational, venues will be no more than one hour apart, giving fans the chance to watch more than one match in a day.
The question of legacy will also be handled in an utterly unique way. Qatar have unveiled plans for modular stadiums that would be dismantled and taken to countries with poor football infrastructure. And the centre-piece of the World Cup will be the Lusail Stadium, a structure that will have a capacity of 86,000 and be surrounded by water. It will take four years to build and promises to be as visually breathtaking as Beijing’s iconic ‘Birds Nest’ Olympic Stadium.
All this and the vast spending on other futuristic solar-powered stadiums may sound alluring, but serious questions persist. The climate in the Middle East remains the dominant issue of concern, with Qatar adamant that they have the technology to counteract the problem.
Each stadium will be designed with an air-conditioning system that will apparently reduce the temperature to a still balmy 27°C. Yet the problem of the heat must also be tackled in respect of the training conditions for the players and the overall experience for supporters.
Doubts also linger over how a country the size of Qatar will be able to handle an influx of around 400,000 fans. Qatar currently has around 50,000 hotel rooms but is aiming to increase that number to 95,000.
For all the potential logistical problems, the decision certainly reflects the vast growth of football’s popularity in the Middle East; something the Premier League has done so much to fuel.
Thousands converged on the Corniche and other public places in Doha in a spontaneous outburst of joy following Blatter's declaration, and there is a wider sense that this could be a transformational moment for the region.
Zinedine Ziadane, the French footballer of Algerian origin, who acted as an ambassador for Qatar's bid, said it was a sign that "the Arab world is emerging". And there was a simple message from Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. "Thank you for believing in change," he said.
It will undoubtedly be a World Cup like no other.