There were audible gasps when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup – and not just in the room where it was announced. The world rushed to judgement with accusations of corruption and a desire to point out that the small Gulf state had no football heritage. Beyond that, the general consensus was that it would not even be possible in a country where temperatures can hit 50°C in the summer. “A football will not be kicked in Qatar,” predicted astonished talkSPORT presenter Danny Kelly at the time. It was hard to disagree.
12 years later, 20 storey images of the greatest players in the world – Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, Sadio Mane and Harry Kane among them – adorn the sides of skyscrapers in the opulent forest of statement architecture next to the Persian Gulf and flags of all 32 represented nations flutter at the side of the street and congregate in select locations in the city, along the 7km long Corniche and in several ‘FanFest’ sites like the main one at Al Biddah park. The official mascot (‘La’eeb’) and the elongated Arabic script viewers at home are about to become very familiar with are everywhere from the airport arrivals hall to the pin badges of the hotel staff. As a branding exercise alone, it is remarkable.
Two things have made this tournament possible: It was moved to the winter and revolutionary cooling technology was developed to regulate the temperature inside the new and bespoke stadia at a comfortable 23-35°C for both players and spectators. The construction of these stadia, however, has made headlines for all the wrong reasons and highlighted the appalling treatment of migrant workers in the country. FIFA and the Qatari authorities remain keen to move the story along but the grievances of unpaid, underpaid and injured workers and the relatives of those who lost their lives remain.
It would be fair to say it has cast a shadow over the tournament but seemingly done little to stifle demand for tickets. An estimated 1.2 million football fans are expected over the next two months in a country with a population of just 300,000, only 15 per cent of them Qataris – quite a few of whom are intending to disappear like the locals in Monaco when the GP is in town. Many ex-pats from other countries will fly in from Dubai or other Gulf states for certain matches and then straight fly back but, by sheer weight of numbers, Doha will be transformed into the transient capital of world football for four weeks.
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The fans will be provided with areas set aside for drinking and partying, live entertainment has been brought in at great expense, and the feeling is that things will be fine if they just stay in the designated areas and don’t misbehave. This will be the most centralised World Cup in history with all venues within 55km of Doha and supporters encouraged to drive to games - those conscious of their carbon footprint can use the brand new Metro system or catch a ludicrously cheap hybrid cab using the Karwa app – but gangs of shirtless England fans wandering around downtown Doha on a stag do is not going to happen.
There is a sense of anticipation in Qatar right now, but also nervousness as the pervasive weight of global football culture arrives en masse in a small and conservative Middle Eastern state. In four days in Doha, I saw plenty of official-looking men strolling about wearing lanyards and high vis jackets but I did not see a single football, let alone anybody playing with one, and only noticed three replica shirts (AC Milan, Brazil and Qatar). FIFA talk about leaving a legacy in Qatar but apart from the stadia, it is difficult to see what might be left behind. Time will tell.