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england v brazil

Big Ben and Copacabana in the Arabian desert

November 13, 2009
By Matthias Krug
(Archive)

This has been an eventful week in Asian football, with the Pohang Steelers of Korea capturing their record breaking third continental crown with a 2-1 Asian Champions League final victory over Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, thereby qualifying for the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in December. And just next door, in the Qatari capital of Doha, two of world football's greatest teams (one perhaps greater than the other in terms of sheer trophies) are readying to exchange heavyweight punches in an international match on Saturday.

Brazil
GettyImagesBrazil train in Doha, under some watchful eyes.

As you read this column the star-studded national teams of Brazil and England will have already checked into glitzy hotels in Doha as they begin their final preparations for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year. Needless to say, the excitement in Qatar is reaching a fever pitch, with the likes of Kaka, Rooney, Wes Brown (well, maybe), Terry or Pato followed by shrieking young fans wherever they decide to go. It is the classic inspirational effect at its best in a region which has a huge passion for the 'beautiful game'.

Now, these two games of football might not seem connected by anything other than the week which separates them, but they do in fact highlight a key issue at the heart of Asian football: to root for home grown competitions and football players or import foreign stars to inspire local audiences. To be or not to be a football power, in the eyes of critics. But of course these two aspects do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is perfectly plausible to develop local football initiatives whilst at the same time importing the very best of international football.

This mixture seems to be epitomised nicely by the Qatari hosts of Saturday's repeat of the classic 2002 World Cup quarter-final, but the critics, most prominently one Scottish manager of Manchester United, call such matches in (and I quote Sir Alex here) - 'some unknown country' - superfluous and needless affairs.

But of course England friendly games at home have often been labelled thus and lacked even a fraction of the interest the game is creating in Qatar. So this may be an important time to reflect on the possibility of turning into a travelling team (how about it: the England Globetrotters!) just like Brazil have done in recent years, especially given that the boys from the Copacabana were the last team to win the World Cup on a different continent the last time I checked my football history books - in South Korea & Japan in 2002. And the next World Cup edition is on a different continent too - Africa.

Which is where the hosts from Qatar come into the picture. Bidding to host the World Cup in 2022, which would be the first ever edition in the Middle East, Qatar is using the visit of Brazil and England to show just how ready this supposedly 'unknown' country is to host a World Cup.

Massive fan festivals have been set up in the Qatari capital, with a Brazilian village set to the backdrop of the Copacabana and a mini beach soccer pitch, whilst the English village has been decorated accordingly with a Big Ben background and Buckingham palace guards. It all promises to be heady stuff.

And of course the subtle irony is that Brazil are the hosts of the 2014 World Cup, while England are running famously for the 2018 and 2022 editions with Qatar. There could be no better teams to show the world your hosting capabilities.

Jack Warner
GettyImagesJack Warner (pictured with Sepp Blatter) is said to be key to England's bid.

Jack Warner, the FIFA Vice President who recently warned England to step up their bidding campaign, already seems to have taken a liking to Qatar's innovative bidding approach, which he praised at a recent football conference in London. And with Rio having won the 2016 Olympics bid on the grounds that South American nations have never hosted the event before, the trend suddenly seems to be swinging in Qatar's favour.

Unlike the two visiting nations, Qatar is building its 2022 bid around a historically compact World Cup plan, cutting visiting fans' travel times between venues to almost zero and allowing them to see more than one match on any given day. The Qataris are also pointing to the fact that a World Cup in the Middle East would open an entirely new market for the world's favourite game, shifting the hosting focus away from the traditional powers as has already been initialised with World Cup editions in Japan and Korea and South Africa next year.

But all that is still music of the future; on Saturday the samba tunes will be playing at the Khalifa Stadium, where a traditional Brazilian Batucada drum band will entertain fans until kick-off time. It promises to be a fascinating encounter in a unique setting - and it may not be the last time that Big Ben and the Copacabana migrate to the Arabian Gulf.