A mix of sun and cloud welcomed the thousands of football fans in the hours leading up to the World Cup final in Moscow. France and Croatia supporters exited the Sportivnaya metro station and made their way down the long pedestrian avenue that leads to Luzhniki Stadium. For the 78,000 in attendance, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the game capped off the month-long football festival and a successful World Cup for the hosts. By the time the match was over, France celebrated their second World Cup title under a heavy downpour.
From the moment referee Néstor Pitana of Argentina had whistled for the end of the match, the pressure moved away from the players on the field and immediately transferred to Hassan al-Thawadi, the man who heads Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organising committee. After Russia’s successful hosting, he knows his country has big shoes to fill. Just two days before the 15 July final, FIFA President Gianni Infantino had even gone as so far as to call it “the best World Cup ever.”
Russia exceeded expectations, both off the field as well as on it, as the country worked arduously to shatter stereotypes. The team came within reach of the semi-finals, an astonishing achievement, eliminated by Croatia in a penalty-kick shootout. Could that stormy weather be a bad omen for Qatar? Not at all. Al-Thawadi said Russia’s success this summer has inspired him: “We’re excited and what we saw in Russia has made us even more excited.”
Qatar has never been to a World Cup. Instead, the World Cup is going to them. With the countdown towards 2022 underway, the country’s efforts to put together a world-class tournament – in addition to a national team that can compete on football’s biggest stage – has come into greater focus. Is Qatar in over its head? Will the work, in building stadiums as well as scouting and training Qatari citizens to play for the national team, yield the results wanted? Qatar 2022’s motto is ‘Expect Amazing’. Will it be?
Since FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar in 2010 – a controversial decision tainted by allegations of corruptions and bribery – the country has been dogged by scandal. Human-rights groups have said that the estimated two million foreign workers who have streamed into the country over the past decade – mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh – have been poorly paid and often mistreated.
These questions get to the heart of Qatar’s problems. For a country with just 300,000 possessing a domestic passport, is there enough there to put together a national team that can get past the group stage in 2022? The only comparison is that of the recent success of Iceland, which has a similar population pool to pull from. It’s a development that brings encouragement to tiny nations everywhere, although conditions vary from one country to the next.
Qatar, like many Arab states, have invested lots of money in trying to fix the problem – and getting mixed results in return. For example, five nations from the region that competed at Russia 2018 – Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt from the African confederation and Saudi Arabia and Iran representing Asia – all failed to get past the group stage.
“I feel that the expectation gap is very high for the [Arab] teams coming to the World Cup. We try to tell them when we qualify for this competition that just qualifying is a big achievement,” said former Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who has a lot of experience coaching in the region. “Just being here at a World Cup is big. Of course, you must come here with a willingness to do the best.”
Building the infrastructure to host the world’s biggest sporting event, as well as the ingredients to cook up a competitive national team, are done in tandem, albeit by separate powers within the country. Ultimately, the Qatari government and its football association are vested in doing both, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a nation when it comes to its footballing future.
Despite never having played in a World Cup finals, Qatar may be ahead of its Arab-speaking neighbours. The jury is still out on whether the Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art talent-spotting operation financed by Qatar’s government, can scout enough quality players to make the senior national team competitive. For inspiration, they may want to look to Saudi Arabia, its much larger neighbour to the west. The oil-rich kingdom has been investing in football’s growth for three decades and the investment has paid off in the form of qualifying for the World Cup on a regular basis since 1994.
Saudi Arabia has the experience and the population. The nation of 32 million has participated in five World Cup finals since 1994, missing out on just South Africa 2010 during that 24-year period. The Saudis also invested in stadiums and tournaments to help create a competitive atmosphere and a passion for the game within the country. The Saudi royal family bankrolled the King Fahd Cup in 1992, at the time a four-time tournament that included the host nation as well as confederation champions from North and South America and Africa. The tournament was eventually taken over by FIFA in 1997 and renamed the Confederations Cup.
Parreira, who coached Saudi Arabia at France 98 just four years after managing his native Brazil to the World Cup title, said it will be more difficult for Qatar compared to Saudi Arabia because extracting talent is simply a numbers game. “Quality is when you have a lot of people. It’s a mass thing,” he said. “You have thousands of players and you can pick up quality. And then there’s the experience.”
Parreira also guided two other Arab nations to the World Cup finals: Kuwait in 1982 and the United Arab Emirates in 1990. He said both nations, who like Qatar are small in population, had squandered opportunities after failing to invest in player and coaching development that often comes with qualifying for a World Cup. “If you look at the infrastructure that they have in the Middle East, like where I work mostly with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, we have 300 players divided into seven clubs in the first division there. That’s it,” Parreira said. “We don’t have any structure for coaching foundation, no instruction for youth development. Then it’s going to be very difficult [to succeed].”
Qatar, 98th in the FIFA rankings as of June, has struggled to move the needle when it comes to international success. One strategy undertaken over the past few years has been to naturalise players – a move that worked for its handball team. French-born Karim Boudiaf, who moved to Qatar when he was 22, and Boualem Khoukhi, an Algerian-born player who moved to the country at 19, are just two recent examples. This group of football mercenaries also includes 24-year-old Ghanaian-born striker Mohammed Muntari as well as Brazilians Luiz Júnior, a 29-year-old defender, and Rodrigo Tabata, a 37-year-old attacking midfielder. Neither one, however, is likely to be in the squad at the next World Cup.
“We’re confident we will have a good team that will do us proud,” al-Thawadi assured. “Will they be as successful as the Russians? We’ll wait and see.”
Last year, Qatar’s Football Association decided to revamp its plans and naturalise fewer players after struggling to qualify for this summer’s World Cup. Instead, the FA decided to put more of its energy into developing young players. Will it work? Two litmus tests will take place next year. Qatar will participate in the Asian Cup, which takes place in the UAE in January, and they’ve been invited by CONMEBOL to participate at next summer’s Copa América in Brazil.
Qatar are currently managed by Félix Sánchez Bas, who moved to the country in 2006 to work for Aspire. He is Qatar’s ninth manager in 10 years, not exactly the model of consistency. The team’s previous manager, Jorge Fossati, who hails from Uruguay, quit in June 2017 following disagreements with the FA over the naturalisation issue. His line-ups had featured as many as seven starters born outside the country.
“They want results very quickly, but there is no continuity,” Parreira said of Arab nations in general. “One day there is a Brazilian coach, another day there is a French coach, another day there is a Spanish coach, another day there is a Croatian coach, another day there is a Dutch coach. They’ve got to concentrate on one school of football. This is what we did with Kuwait. We had all the teams unite in the Brazilian way, so we had the structure.”
Despite the managerial merry-go-round, Qatar is determined to do well in its own backyard. They have been working feverishly to do so, throwing money at foreign managers to make up for the lack of tradition, pedigree and experience that decades of competitive football have given countries like Brazil, Germany and Italy.
The Qatari top-flight, for example, crowned its first champion in 1972, but was contested in relative obscurity. Known as the Qatari Stars League, its first division features 14 clubs, while the second tier consists of 18. Following a royal decree in 2004, Aspire was formed with the goal of providing world-class training facilities to nurture youth development and improve playing standards throughout this nation of just 11,500-square kilometres.
Several notable national team players graduated from the academy, including defenders Ibrahim Majid and Abdelkarim Hassan. However, only two graduates, Akram Afif and Ahmed Yasser, regularly play for European clubs: Afif at KAS Eupen in Belgium and Yasser at Cultural Leonesa in Spain. Both clubs are owned and run by Qatar’s government through Aspire.
In 2003, the league encouraged clubs to purchase big-name players by allocating $10m each to their spending budgets. As a result, players like Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta were lured to the tiny nation. A parade of foreign coaches also came through the league. This past season, the league’s first division clubs featured not one Qatari manager. Among the notables in this group is Al-Rayyan manager Michael Laudrup.
“They need to continue that path, work with professionals to develop coaches and the young players and make a strong league,” Parreira said. “Otherwise, when you get to this [World Cup] level, you will always be missing something.”
In 2015, former Barcelona midfielder Xavi, a member of Spain’s World Cup-winning side in 2010, signed with Al Sadd. Part of the deal was for the central midfielder to also work as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup. Xavi told CNN last year that he wouldn’t rule out the opportunity to coach Qatar in time for the World Cup: “It’s an objective of mine to help them have a good tournament,” he said.
In the days leading up to the World Cup final, the Luzhniki wasn’t the only attraction. Further along the banks of the Moscow River was a portal of the next World Cup. Located a short walk from the Luzhniki was Qatar Elements, a large glass cube adorned with electronic screens that housed an interactive museum about Qatar’s history. At a second location near the river, a pop-up pavilion called Majlis Qatar was made to look like a bazaar, replete with men and women in traditional attire highlighting the region’s culture and food. Thousands of fans visited the two sites, along with several interactive kiosks scattered throughout Moscow and Saint Petersburg during Russia 2018.
It was just taste of what you can see in Qatar’s capital city of Doha. That’s the place where officials – housed in a large glass skyscraper called the Al Bidda tower with a view of the Persian Gulf – have been tirelessly working for years. Qatar needs to build stadiums, hotels, roads and train lines to pull off the tournament and welcome the estimated 1.5 million fans from all over the planet expected to visit a country that has just 2.6 million residents, most of them foreigners. What was mostly desert a three decades ago has been transformed thanks to petrol and natural gas money. The large-scale construction has turned this once-barren land into a 21st century nation ready to host the world’s biggest sporting event.
“I think the World Cup in Qatar will be one of dreams,” said Bora Milutinović, who coached five different countries to the World Cup finals and serves as a technical adviser to Aspire. “It is a small country. In just one day you can see two games. You have no travel time. I am happy it will be there.”
The compact nature of the next tournament means that the World Cup could have more of an Olympics-type feel with players and fans in closer proximity to one another. Organisers also hope to highlight Arab culture for visitors who may have never previously been to the Middle East, providing them with unique opportunities such as accommodation options that include desert camps and cruise ships.
Qatari organisers sent 180 people to Russia for a month – a delegation that included members of the FA and tourism authority – to observe how the tournament was run and what they need to study regarding gameday logistics, public transportation needs and security measures outside stadiums and other public areas. Russia’s implementation of the Fan ID, used to track supporters who attended matches, is something Qatar said it will emulate.
The country has other unique issues it must tackle. The ban on alcohol consumption is something organisers need to figure out as many fans coming will be looking to enjoy a drink in the Muslim nation. Then there’s also the issue of the hot weather. The searing heat has forced FIFA – but only after the tournament had already been awarded under the leadership of its scandal-ridden former president Sepp Blatter – to be moved from its traditional June-July timetable to November-December.
“I hear a lot of talk of the temperature,” Milutinovic joked. “People ask me how will it be there? In my experience, when I was coaching there, there was a game where I was asked beforehand, ‘what temperature would you like to play in?’ I told him 16 degrees. He said perfect and they put on the air conditioning. It was an experience.”
Infantino confirmed that Qatar 2022 will kick off on November 21, with the final taking place December 18. The tournament may also be expanded to 48 teams, four years ahead of schedule, but remains something FIFA still needs to work out logistically with Qatari officials. Infantino even proposed the possibility that neighbouring Gulf states host matches alongside Qatar should the tournament undergo an expansion sooner.
“We will decide whether it’s 48 or 32 teams in the next few months. We must have discussions with the Qataris and then if there is a possibility with the FIFA Council and stakeholders. Then we will decide calmly and quietly what the decision is,” he said. “For now, it’s a World Cup with 32 teams – but everybody is open-minded and we will have a frank and open debate.”
Qatar does promise to be a unique experience for organisers, teams and supporters alike. The nation has just four years to make it happen. What transpires between now and then will have an enormous impact on whether Qatar can emulate Russia and be successful both on and off the field.
“For us, we always believed in the power of football in bringing people together, the power of football in changing minds and hearts,” Al-Thawadi said. “We always saw the first World Cup in the Middle East as a powerful tool to do that. Russia 2018 has proven very clearly how transformation is the power of football is in changing people’s hearts and minds.”
By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi