1 December ~ In the year-long maelstrom that has followed FIFA's decision to award Qatar hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, the state of football in the kingdom has been largely overlooked. When awarded the tournament, Qatar sat 112th in FIFA's world rankings and had never come close to qualifying for a World Cup. South Africa, about which similar concerns were once voiced, was 39th when FIFA awarded it the 2010 finals. "We're a small country and a young country. People forget that independence was only gained in 1971, but we're not without sporting pedigree," says Nasser al-Khater, World Cup 2022 director of communications.
Al-Khater points to a tradition that started with Qatar's surprise runners-up spot at the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championships (in which they beat an England team including Neil Webb, Stewart Robson and Paul Allen in the semi-finals) and extends through to Al Sadd's Asian Champions League success last month.
After a 4-0 home win against Indonesia and an uninspiring goalless draw against Bahrain in November, Qatar were virtually assured of progression to the second round of qualifiers for the 2014 finals. The goal, says Hassan al-Thawadi, chief executive of the 2022 bid, is to ensure Qatar qualifies on its own merits before hosting the World Cup. "Our bid and Al Sadd's achievement show that nothing is impossible. There are no limits to what you can achieve if you put your heart and soul to it."
Al-Thawadi sees the Aspire Academy, a vast arena in downtown Doha that encompasses world-class indoor venues, sports science facilities and an enormous youth development academy, as central to this aspiration. He believes that by the time Qatar host the World Cup, the country will be able to "show everyone we have players who are talented and can compete with the rest of the world." Perhaps fancifully, he adds: "We will see Qatar players in La Liga and the Premier League by 2022 and young players from Europe will be wanting to come here."
Aspire's work is not without controversy. There have been accusations that its extensive scouting programme, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, takes the best talent from some countries with the promise of a Qatari passport. It has also been alleged that plans to build satellites of the academy globally may have influenced some FIFA ExCo members to vote for Qatar last December. But Aspire has aided the kingdom's rise as a sporting venue. It is a regular destination for European clubs and the annual sports conference brings in names such as Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi and Barcelona president Sandro Rossell, as well as senior executives from across global sport.
However, Al Sadd's Asian Champions League success masked some of the problems facing domestic football. While the standard of the Qatar Stars League is improving and is now less reliant on high-profile European players looking for a final payday (Pep Guardiola, Ronald de Boer and Gabriel Batistuta all ended their playing days there), the league struggles for local fans. Their affections usually lie with La Liga or the Premier League, which are available cheaply via satellite TV. Women are largely absent from stadiums, which in turn keeps children away. All this perpetuates a TV-culture that leaves stadiums empty. Most games are played before barely a handful of spectators.
A hugely popular twice-weekly football discussion show on the Al Kass TV network, which assesses Qatari and Gulf football in intricate detail, demonstrates that there is interest in local football. Huge Indonesian and Egyptian expat turnouts for recent internationals were reminders that oft-forgotten foreigners outnumber native Qataris by five to one and are an untapped fanbase. "Of course it is a different mentality and there are different standards," admits Al Khor's Norwegian international defender, Pa Modou Kah. "If you are playing in Europe there is more pressure than here because you play to win. Here you play to win as well, but in a different environment. There are no spectators. Everyone watches the game at home. In the long run, that has to change." James Corbett