Is criticism of Qatar, World Cup 2022 host, justified?

Posted by Graham Ruthven

Karim Jaafar/Getty ImagesEver since Qatar's winning World Cup bid was announced, we've heard nothing but criticism and complaint. It is all justified?

When Sepp Blatter announced Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup, his words echoed around the vast Zurich conference hall where the FIFA Executive Committee had gathered. Then, like a baby taking a breath before crying, came the reaction, one of shock and exasperation. Also, jubilation among the small bid team that had travelled to Switzerland from the tiny Gulf state.

"The biggest football joke of all time," screamed one Norwegian newspaper's front page. "Qatar has stolen the World Cup," claimed another commentator.

In the two years since that moment, football has indeed thrown a temper tantrum. The toys have been thrown out of the bureaucratic crib, and with the tournament about nine years away, the sport still appears to be in a huff.

The significance of Qatar's hosting such an event is undeniable -- a country that could fit within the footprint of Connecticut, inhabited by fewer than 2 million people, will be welcoming the world's biggest sporting competition.

High-profile and highly influential figures have voiced their opposition to the notion of Qatar's hosting the World Cup. UEFA President Michel Platini protested that "you cannot possibly play football in Qatar" while FIFA Executive Committee member Franz Beckenbauer insisted "one should think about a different solution."

A warning has been issued that Qatar is trying to buy the soul of the game: Like a plot straight out of "Scooby-Doo," the allegation goes, the tiny nation is planning to gather football's most powerful and influential before kidnapping them and never giving them back.

Getty ImagesBoth Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer have been critical of the Qatar bid and shown skepticism as to how the World Cup will be organized.



But beyond the decision made in Switzerland two years ago -- and more importantly why it was made -- is the level of criticism Qatar faces over its World Cup blueprint entirely fair?

Furthermore, is it possible that lingering bitterness over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is tainting judgment of the Gulf state's credentials to host such an event, particularly in the English-speaking media?

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Let's start from the announcement itself. Qatar's methods in securing the necessary votes to host the tournament have been heavily scrutinized, with investigations conducted across Europe and within FIFA itself that found a number of irregularities in the voting process.

A number of senior FIFA figures, including the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohammed bin Hammam, have been suspended as a result -- and as such, the legitimacy of Qatar's winning bid has been called into question.

Concerns have also been raised regarding the country's questionable human rights record and commitment to Sharia law -- homosexuality is outlawed in Qatar.

There have even been suggestions that the tournament could be prised away from Qatar if concerns over the intense heat in the summer months result in a scheduling switch to the winter, all of which would open the awarding of the tournament up to litigation and legal challenges.

By some estimates, the 2022 World Cup will cost Qatar, the richest country per capita on earth, about $115 billion (over 30 times what South Africa spent on the 2010 World Cup -- $3.5 billion). About half of that will be spent in the next five years alone, funding more than 200 different projects.

Critics have ripped through almost every aspect of Qatar's bid manifesto, with the country's intense summer climate leading many to conclude that elite-level sport couldn't possibly take place in such conditions. Pressure to switch the tournament to a winter schedule persists.

Adam Pretty/Getty ImagesThe city of Doha is a major economic and cultural hub in the middle east, one that can accommodate those that make the trip for the 2022 World Cup.


Yet Arup Associates, a firm hired to execute Qatar's architectural vision for 2022, has built a small prototype of a fully air-conditioned stadium in Doha to help further persuade a FIFA inspection team that the tiny nation's ambitious World Cup project can succeed.

The 500-seater model arena, which uses solar technology to keep temperatures for players and fans down to a cool 75 degrees Fahrenheit, cost $25 million to construct -- as much as some countries spent on their entire bid -- and does provide some explanation as to how Qatar plans to curb the harsh summer conditions in addition to Al-Sadd Stadium in Doha, which has had cooling systems in place since 2008. (Recent reports suggest an overall World Cup stadium construction cost of 100 billion Qatari rials, or $24.5 billion.)

"When we saw the real effect of it, we all thought it may work and bring a revolutionary technology to sports," says Harold Mayne-Nicholls, who led the FIFA technical inspection team of all World Cup bid sites ahead of the deciding vote.

If Wimbledon can air-condition its Centre Court by pumping 143,000 liters of air each second to keep the interior temperature at a constant, is it really so far-fetched to believe Qatar can do the same thing, but on a bigger scale?

The obvious counterpoint is the size of Centre Court (15,000 capacity) compared to what one would expect for the world's biggest soccer tournament. Yet the officials in charge remain unconcerned. "Our bid was based on the sole intent of hosting the 2022 World Cup in the summer," says Nasser Al-Khater, director of communications for Qatar 2022. FIFA's technical inspectors attended a Qatari League match at Al-Sadd Stadium and experienced the cooling systems firsthand.

"Our commitment to a summer tournament and this technology is grounded in the legacy it will offer for Qatar and countries with similar climates," Al-Khater says.

However, if the welfare of traveling fans, rather than players, is the prime concern of those who oppose Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, perhaps they should draw a comparison with Las Vegas.

This may seem to be an irrelevant parallel at first -- casinos are, after all, entirely indoors and sealed-off from the outside world -- but Vegas welcomes a staggering 6 million tourists (Qatar expects 400,000 for the World Cup) between June and July, when the average temperature in the Nevada desert reaches a high of 106 degrees, just like in Doha.

And just as Qatar proposes, Las Vegas looks after its visitors by providing air-conditioned walkways, monorail systems and covered public areas. If any nation can air-condition its entire country, or at least the parts it plans to use for the World Cup, it's Qatar.

Adam Pretty/Getty ImagesKhalifa International Stadium has hosted recent international friendlies and has been praised by FIFA officials for its modernity and design.


Furthermore, Qatar has pledged to host the first carbon-neutral World Cup, using solar energy to power the colossal air conditioning units that will be installed in venues, something for which the searing heat and sunshine will actually come in handy.

Questions have also been asked about the tournament's legacy. Will Qatar be left with a number of scarcely used "white elephants," as South Africa was following its hosting of the 2010 World Cup?

Many of the venues used at London 2012 -- including the centerpiece Olympic Stadium -- were largely temporary facilities, with some arenas completely dismantled after the closing ceremony.

Qatar has pledged to follow a similar model, with a number of modular stadiums set to be dismantled and relocated in developing countries following the conclusion of the event. However, the promise of sustainability has been extended further to include its infrastructure programme.

According to FIFA's bid evaluation report, Qatar currently has 44,000 hotel rooms, far short of the 90,000 recommended by FIFA for hosting such an event.

To reach that target, Qatar is planning to dock cruise ships along its shoreline, with one particular floating hotel, Al-Wakrah, set to accommodate up to 20,000 supporters.

Other solutions will see a number of temporary accommodation blocks erected across the country, as Qatar continues to maintain its promise of developing an infrastructure it can sustain after the World Cup leaves.

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Whether those answers are convincing enough is down to personal judgment. Are attitudes toward the Gulf state any softer elsewhere in Europe, where relations with Qatar are somewhat closer?

Philippe Auclair, a London-based correspondent for France Football and the co-author of a 20-page in-depth investigation into the Qatar World Cup and the methods that delivered it, doesn't think so.

"Now that Francois Hollande has taken over from Nicolas Sarkozy as president, there's certainly more skepticism of Qatari involvement in French affairs," Auclair told ESPN. "The relationship, which goes much deeper than just football, was once a very personal one between Sarkozy and the Emir, but under Hollande that has cooled.

Lionel Bonaventure/Getty ImagesSeveral world media outlets have denounced Qatar's bid as being rife with scandal and inconsistencies, ones that the country itself is working to overcome.


"Questions are being asked in France, just like elsewhere, of the Qatar World Cup. It's certainly not something that’s limited to just the English and American media."

What is certain is that a number of scaremongering myths have indeed skewed public opinion of the 2022 World Cup. For a start, alcohol isn't illegal in Qatar but rather prohibited in public places, as it is on London public transport.

Nobody has been executed in Qatar in more than a decade, unlike in the USA where 43 convicts were killed by the state in 2012 alone. Qatar isn't a democracy and doesn't allow political parties, but in comparison to other Arabian countries, it actually adopts a distinctly Western social tolerance.

It's also worth pointing out that while allegations of bribery and skullduggery dog the legitimacy of Qatar's winning bid, the Gulf nation ranked 27th worldwide in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perceptions Index, 42 places ahead of Brazil, host of the 2014 World Cup, and 106 places ahead of Russia, host of the 2018 tournament.

Of course, one thing Qatar can't claim to have is a strong footballing history and heritage, regardless of what measures are being taken to change that. But does that have a bearing on whether Qatar can host a successful World Cup?

"There may be some underlying prejudice in the criticism that has been leveled against us," says Al-Khater. "Some of the criticism we have received has been wholly unjustified and on occasion ignorant.

"Our region is often misrepresented and misunderstood, but the 2022 World Cup can change perceptions of the Gulf and the Middle East. We do have a football tradition, which we are proud of and aim to build on in the coming years.

"Some of the criticism has been from individuals who have not taken the time to study the details of our bid or contacted us to clarify or explain details that may not be clear to the average onlooker, such as cooling technology or modular stadiums.

"We ask that we be given the chance to demonstrate why FIFA made the right choice to bring the World Cup to the Middle East."

Qatar 2030 is the name given to the plan devised by the Qatari Emir Sheikh bin Khalifa Al Thani to channel the country's vast resources into a vision for their future. Set against a backdrop of Europe-wide austerity and recession, Qatar is effectively building and preparing for a population that doesn't yet live there.

Ultimately, this vision goes deeper than football or sport. Emir Sheikh Hamad sees the World Cup as just another detail in a broad social blueprint for the whole of the Gulf region. The growth and development of Doha's West Bay, now a towering hub for finance and investment, presents a statement of intent for this tiny desert peninsula.

In fact, financial viability might well be the one checkbox that Qatar can't claim as being ticked. It's difficult to understand how Qatar will claw back an outlay of $115 billion, let alone make a profit on top of that.

But then Qatar never planned to make money from the World Cup. For them football is part of a wider plan. As Auclair says, "Aside from money, football is their biggest weapon."

One must wonder if that weapon is being used to get people to Qatar in the first place, the idea being that visitors won't need to be kidnapped and then rescued by Scooby and the gang. Instead, they'll stay because they want to. And for those who can't make it, the World Cup will be a showcase.

Perhaps the biggest question for Qatar lies beyond football and the World Cup: If you build it, will they actually come? That might be the one question they can't yet answer.

Graham Ruthven is a freelance football writer, juggling his work for the New York Times and STV among others while displaying an all-consuming crush for Dimitar Berbatov. He believes all football shirts should have sashes, and he can be found on Twitter @grahamruthven.

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