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April 26, 2010

Is Qatar Blatter's next host nation?

By Matthias Krug
(Archive)

The Qatari capital of Doha has been the epicentre of Asian football this past week, a veritable volcano of regional football news which has spewed some interesting conclusions.

Asian Cup draw at the Aspire Dome
GettyImagesAsian Cup draw at the Aspire Dome

First the draw for the Asian Cup final in Qatar in January 2011 was held at the Aspire Dome in Doha, bringing together the best of Asian football. Then, just a day later, FIFA President Sepp Blatter arrived to proclaim his support for Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid in a surprisingly outspoken manner.

The latter piece of news seems perhaps the more significant in the world view of the game. It was after all Blatter who wholeheartedly supported the idea of a World Cup on the African continent. And here we are, just weeks away from that dream becoming a reality.

Now Blatter has arrived in Qatar and made the following, highly interesting remark:

"The Arab world deserves to host the World Cup. We are now nearing the end of the bidding process for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 and Qatar is the only country bidding from the Middle East. I was an advocate of the FIFA's rotation policy. It was important to bring the World Cup to North America and Africa. Now I strongly feel that the World Cup should come to Qatar."

This is a strong statement indeed in support of a bid that has hitherto been seen as somewhat of an outsider, albeit one with a great deal of hidden potential. Whilst fellow Asian bidders Indonesia have withdrawn from the bidding process because of a lack of government backing, Qatar's bid has a full backing from their government.

Whilst bidding rivals Australia have been troubled by other sports claiming their right to use the facilities planned for the tournament, Qatar has proposed to send parts of its modular stadia around the world after the finals are over, to serve as a sporting legacy for poorer countries.

Finally, whilst bidding rivals like Japan, South Korea, the USA or Mexico have already hosted the finals, Qatar - much like South Africa this year - can offer the extremely important socio-political message of spreading the game to new regions of the globe.

Furthermore, there is a direct link between the World Cup in South Africa and a possible first World Cup in the Middle East.

Blatter, who has not yet decided whether to stand for re-election as FIFA President next year, told reporters in Doha: "I have said, let's wait for the World Cup because it is 'my' World Cup and there are many eyes in the European media looking at me to see how this tournament will be delivered.

"To bring the World Cup to Africa was a project I had in mind 35 years ago, when in February 1976 I undertook a technical course in Addis Ababa. The Arabic world deserves a World Cup. They have 22 countries and have not had any opportunity to organise the tournament. When I was first in Qatar there were 400,000 people here and now there are 1.6 million. In terms of infrastructure, when you are able to organise the Asian Games in 2006, with more than 30 events for men and women, then that is not in question."

What may weigh in as part of the question is how well South Africa performs its hosting duties. If the World Cup in South Africa turns out to be an overwhelming success, it could be a great argument for FIFA to award more finals to parts of the world which have never hosted the tournament before. On the other hand a mediocre World Cup in Africa may weigh in negatively on the FIFA choice this December.

Sepp Blatter: Has FIFA chief got another pet project?
GettyImagesSepp Blatter: Has FIFA chief got another pet project?

Of course a poor World Cup in South Africa would not mean that Qatar cannot host the finals wonderfully, or vice versa. But it could indeed be an important stepping stone towards more top tournaments being awarded to countries outside of the traditional hosting circle.

The Qataris already have much hosting experience, of course. This coming January, just six months after the finals in South Africa, they will host the best Asian football nations in the Asian Cup 2011. The draw revealed a Group A in which the hosts have been drawn with Gulf rivals Kuwait, former runners-up China and tricky Uzbekistan, whom Qatar will meet in the tournament opener on January 7.

Another interesting group is that containing Australia, Bahrain, Korea Republic and India. The Indians, coached by Bob Houghton will be looking to spring the surprise of the tournament, although they are of course rank outsiders, as Houghton admitted.

"The ranking itself speaks about the difference in standards," he said. "Australia are 19th in the world and India are ranked 132. Bahrain are also good. The best advantage I have is I will be having six months with the team together, including a couple of months training in Europe. It's a big ask but we will be better prepared. I know that there are lots of Indians here in Doha, especially Keralites. It'll be nice to have their support, but we need to deliver on the field as well."

In contrast, host nation Qatar will be especially keen to deliver off the pitch, especially considering Blatter's praise and the fact that they could find themselves a World Cup host nation by the time the tournament kicks off in January 2011.