Fifa World Cup: Qatar’s improbable dream finally becomes reality, as man responsible hails football’s impact
- Journey from bid’s start in 2010 has been anything but smooth for Hassan Al Thawadi and his team
- The tournament gets under way on Sunday, when the hosts take on Ecuador
Sharply dressed and without a hair out of place, Hassan Al Thawadi looked every inch the high-flying executive as he held court in the lobby of Kuala Lumpur’s Shangri-la Hotel.
Affable yet slick and barely in his thirties, the head of his country’s World Cup bid team was telling the planet that Qatar – an oil-and-gas rich state with less than half the population of Hong Kong – was bidding to host the 2022 finals. Every incredulous questioner heard the same response.
“Yes, we’re very serious,” he chimed with a conviction that left no doubt Al Thawadi believed this peninsula jutting into the Gulf had the capacity to host one of the sporting world’s flagship events.
On Sunday evening, 13 years after that bid was launched, Al Thawadi, now the chief executive of the World Cup organising committee, will see that improbable dream become reality, as Qatar kicks off the latest edition of the finals at Al Bayt Stadium against Ecuador.
It has been anything but a smooth journey. Since Qatar was awarded the rights, controversies have come with regularity: the outrage at the December 2010 decision, amid allegations of corruption within FIFA’s decision-making executive committee, was followed by the controversial shifting of the finals from their usual June slot to November.
The tournament became a geopolitical punching bag, with a Saudi Arabia-led blockade impacting on preparations while pressure grew on Qatar to co-host the event as Fifa president Gianni Infantino promoted a failed proposal to consider expanding the number of participants from 32 to 48 nations.
In the meantime, Western media and rights groups have maintained constant attacks on the country’s employment laws and treatment of those who have built the venues and infrastructure at significant cost, both in terms of dollars spent and – more damningly – lives lost.
So, after more than a decade of scandal and acrimony, it is a symbol of the Qataris hardiness, as much as it is FIFA’s dubious decision making, that the tournament is taking place at all in the Gulf nation.
“We have had to address areas that most host nations wouldn’t have to address, so the concept of change and moving back and forwards is not something new to us,” Al Thawadi has said. “We’re very resilient, we’re very resourceful and I’m very proud to say that’s the character within us.”
Over the past decade Qatar’s government has spent an estimated US$200 billion to overhaul the entire nation, with multi-lane highways and gleaming metro lines linking entirely new urban areas that have sprung out of the desert in record time.
The hosting of the 2022 World Cup has been an exercise in nation-building and development that will resonate long after the row over serving beer at stadiums has quietened.
That is one issue among many that has underlined Qatar’s determination to run the event on their own terms after spending US$6.5 billion on the eight stadiums to be used until the finals end on December 18, the country’s national day.
“Today the metro is built in record time,” Al Thawadi said when the public transport system opened. “If it wasn’t for the World Cup it would have taken years and years and years.
“The development of legislation in the country, when we talk about workers’ reforms, would have taken years even though we have good intentions. It would have taken many years to develop those. The World Cup accelerated those initiatives.”
Qatar’s investment has gone beyond infrastructure, with significant sums spent to develop a team capable of being competitive during the country’s first appearance at the finals.
Spanish coach Felix Sanchez has nurtured many of the players who will represent the nation since their youth, acting as a father figure for a team that goes into the World Cup having won the continental title, the Asian Cup, in 2019.
“I think that the best thing that can happen to a team and a footballer is keep calm, avoid any sort of noise around you from a football point of view,” Sanchez, who has worked in Qatar since 2006, said. “Obviously we don’t like people criticising our country.
“We have had great preparation ahead of the World Cup. We have kept calm, that’s how we planned our camps and we’re in good form. All the players come here with the highest motivation. We have to be realistic about the possibilities but we think we can do well.”
Should Sanchez’s side show the resilience of Al Thawadi and company over the past decade, Ecuador will have a game on their hands.