Qatar World Cup 2022 special report: Staging the tournament in this desert country is like holding the Olympics in Nether Wallop

The location of the 2022 World Cup is the most contentious issue football has ever faced. Tim Rich pays a rare visit to the desert state and witnesses the money, madness and mayhem behind the scenes of what will be the strangest tournament in the game’s history

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The Independent Football

The idea had been to stand at the place where the 2022 World Cup would begin, probably in eight Novembers’ time. I failed. You would have to walk on water.

The Lusail Iconic Stadium will host the first and the last matches of the most controversial World Cup for a generation. However, not only does it not yet exist, they are still building the island that it will sit on. That will hold an 80,000-seater stadium, two golf courses, a couple of marinas and, naturally because this is the Arabian Gulf, a vast shopping complex. Doha, Qatar’s capital, often resembles an endless building site and this is its greatest project.

To see what Lusail might be like, you can go to its sister island, The Pearl. It has a marina that resembles an Arabian Monaco. The only sound on a November night are Ferraris and Maseratis revving outside the showrooms that guard a discreet shopping arcade, where Calvin Klein is the closest you get to Primark. When it is finally finished, it will have cost $15billion. Lusail will cost more.

The most poignant plea to stage a World Cup was made by the head of the Chile FA, Carlos Dittborn, who had seen much of his country reduced to rubble by an earthquake. “Chile must have the World Cup,” he said, “because we have nothing.”

Curiously and romantically, Fifa awarded the 1962 tournament to the nation that had nothing. Half a century on, they gave it to the country that has everything.

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Qatar has very little in the way of football history (Getty Images)

Once November is chosen, Qatar will have to plan how to accommodate 300,000 fans in a country of 1.7m. For the 2006 Asian Games, they moored cruise liners by the Al Corniche waterfront, although for the World Cup the government may have to buy up the entire P&O fleet.

The solution may be to stay in Dubai and take the half-hour flight to Doha rather than opt for the strange collection of towns that have been selected to become “World Cup host cities”.

Fifa requires eight. Brazil had a dozen because Luiz Lula, the nation’s president when the bid was accepted, had his power base in the north and wanted to reward his backers.

His other promises, a metro system for Fortaleza and a monorail for Manaus, never materialised but it led to what the Italy midfielder, Andrea Pirlo, called “two World Cups, one in the north and one in the south”, won by Germany, the only major nation to realise it and base and acclimatise themselves in the north.

Qatar will be one World Cup, largely based around a single city. Doha will get its metro, the only solution to choking traffic, but, away from the capital, there are the motley “World Cup host cities”.

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My driver had no idea why I would want to travel to Al-Wakra which will stage group and round-of-16 matches in a stadium that critics scoffed was shaped like a vagina. The town has a beach, a striking looking roundabout and rows upon rows of uniform beige houses and the inevitable, frantic building works. It is nothing more than a dormitory town for Doha with a Costa Coffee and a few mini-marts. “That’s it,” my driver said as we arrived.

The driver, who came to Qatar from the horn of Africa “for money, why else does anyone come to Qatar?” was baffled by my decision to visit. Al-Wakra makes Rustenburg, the mining town on the South African veld where England’s footballers went out of their minds with boredom, seem like Paris in the Twenties.

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Drive a couple of hours through Qatar’s scrubby, rocky desert with a few telegraph poles and the inevitable cement lorries for company, and you come to Al-Shamal, another “host city”.

It possesses one of the country’s more charming tourist spots, a fort that once guarded the Straits of Hormuz with its Napoleonic-era cannon. It has been granted a 45,000-seater stadium, which will seat nine times more than Al-Shamal’s total population. It will be like staging the Olympics in Nether Wallop.

Qatar’s ambitions are not limited to the World Cup. In a week’s time the state will know whether it has won the right to stage the World Athletics Championships in 2019, in the face of opposition from Barcelona and Eugene in Oregon. They expect to win.

The arguments against it are familiar to anyone who has raged against its award of the World Cup – the heat, the sight of a sport bowing down before the petrodollars and a tournament squeezing itself in to match Qatar’s requirements. The proposal is for the marathon to be run at night.

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What the Al-Shamal Stadium in Al-Shamal, Qatar, will look like

Jonathan Edwards competed in a very different Doha 14 years ago. Then, the only prestige hotel was the Sheraton on the Al-Corniche waterfront. The Sheraton is still standing, which would not be true of most buildings in Doha in 2000 – the old town, built when pearl fishing was Qatar’s main source of income, has been moved to another part of the city. But it is dwarfed by newer, bigger, brasher arrivals.

“There is no question they will be able to put on the event,” said Edwards, who was hosting the Doha Goals Sports Forum. “The facilities will be second to none. The issue is the welfare of the athletes.

“I competed in the World Athletics Championships in Seville in 1999. The temperatures rose to 44 degrees; it was like competing in an oven, your head was pounding. They have to be able to look after everyone and that includes the spectators.

“It will be easier for them to stage a World Athletics Championships than it would a World Cup because the tournament is more contained and it would suit athletes more than footballers. We are used to competing in the summer; there are short, explosive events. It wouldn’t, for example, affect my sport, the triple jump, as much as other events. I wouldn’t like to be Mo Farah out there but the idea of staging the marathon at night could be quite dramatic, like the Grand Prix in Singapore. How it will affect the footballers, I am not so sure.”

Edwards is a principled man, a Christian. Did he imagine athletes or footballers, hearing the stories of the heat and the death toll of those who built the stadiums – a number that would have shamed a pharaoh – might boycott either tournament?

“I don’t know enough about the politics,” he said. “What I would say is that the priority of an athlete is the facilities. If those are right, they’ll come.”

Only in a very few cases – the Berlin Olympics, the cricket tours of apartheid South Africa – does sport become overshadowed by politics.

On the auditorium wall where the conference is being held is a line that starts: “All kids around the world want to be Pele,” a modest quote from Pele. The images of the 1970 World Cup are still vividly fresh; a fluid team passing the ball with beauty in the white light of Mexico.  Nobody mentions that the winners returned to Brazil to a reception from a fascist dictatorship.

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The moment when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, in December 2010 (EPA)

Eight years later, when a far bloodier gang of dictators, the Argentine junta, staged the World Cup, the atrocities explained away by an American public-relations firm, only one footballer, the West German midfielder, Paul Breitner, refused to travel. There will be no boycott of Qatar 2022.

The American athletes forced to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might have wondered what the sacrifice was for when their own country invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Sebastian Coe, the man leading the IAAF inspection of the bid for the World Athletics Championships, chose to go to Moscow in 1980. “The decision to give the Games to the Soviet Union was made in 1973 and everybody went: ‘errrm I am not sure’. But looking back, I like to think I was part of the infancy of change by going there,” he said. “Big sporting events begin debates about things that politicians never get close to.”

In his appearance at Doha Goals, Lord Coe was clear on two points. The time to judge the success of an Olympics or a World Cup is a decade after it has finished. Barcelona, by his judgement, was a great Olympics because it transformed the city forever.

Coe’s second point is that the Premier League and Fox Television, who have paid $425m to televise the World Cup only to discover a November tournament will clash with the NFL season, will have to swallow it in the name of a global sporting calendar.

Had Qatar been cleverer, they would have involved the whole of the Gulf – Dubai, Bahrain and Muscat. It would have made sense to have had an Arabian World Cup and, given the money Arsenal, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have taken in inflated sponsorships from the Gulf, few could have argued if, suddenly, the Gulf wanted something back.

But that is to misread the rivalries that split the region. The emirates compete among themselves. The Qatar that won the right to stage the World Cup is not just a country that has everything; it is a nation that wants it all.

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