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Qatar’s World Cup challenge magnified by track worlds issues

/ 04:32 PM October 08, 2019

Empty seats before the the women’s 100 meter final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

DOHA, Qatar— By day, Juma Marzouq approves Qatar’s masterplans for the vast stadium infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. By night, Marzouq goes into fan mode, tackling the challenge of filling football arenas in this tiny nation.

Marzouq has seen encouraging signs since Qatar’s breakthrough on the field in February, when it won the Asian Cup for its first major football title.

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The urban planning expert last week glanced around the near-full stands of Al Sadd’s 15,000-seat stadium for the visit of Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League, a small victory for the hosts.

“We have a new generation coming to the stadiums,” Marzouq said.

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It isn’t always like this at football — or any other sport in Qatar — despite the ruling family’s thirst for bidding for elite events.

Almost 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, far less boisterous scenes played out at Khalifa Stadium for most of the 10 days of the world track and field championships that ended Sunday. Organizers were left trying to explain away the thousands of empty seats.

“In every event there are lessons learned,” said Dahlan Al Hamad, vice president of the local organizing committee. “You cannot build the fan in one day, you have to engage them in the sport, they have to know the system of the sport, they have to have their athletes and know about their lives.

“We are really increasing the number of fans,” he said. “If you could just compare today compared to 10 years ago you know, the fans here in Doha, it would be totally different than here.”

Just like FIFA’s contentious decision to grant the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, this was the first time the showpiece event on the track calendar had been awarded to the Middle East. The sparsely attended competition reignited concerns about Qatar’s ability to fill the eight stadiums that have been built from scratch or completely renovated to meet FIFA’s standards.

“People love (football) here,” said Al Sadd coach Xavi Hernandez, a World Cup-winning midfielder with Spain in 2010. “They are crazy for (football.”

Xavi is helping to promote Qatar’s football credentials to a world skeptical of the choice of location for sport’s premier quadrennial event. He also does damage control — the World Cup bidding process and the conditions for migrant workers building the event’s infrastructure are two hot-button topics.

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FIFA is counting on rabid fans to travel no matter where the world’s most popular sporting event is held because this World Cup faces challenges others haven’t.

The oppressive summer heat forced FIFA to move the World Cup from its June-July slot to a November-December schedule that cuts into the club season in Europe and changes the habits of fans who are resistant to change.

Those who make the trip will need to be open-minded, and patient, especially in the traffic on the Doha roads.

Finding a beer won’t be easy. Many hotels are dry and only one shop in the country sells booze to locally-based foreigners with employer approval.

Unlike in Russia or Brazil — the past two hosts — there is not a vast variety of tourist attractions, beyond the national museum that is still being completed, the souk and trips into the desert. With all stadiums within an hour of Doha, the skyscraper and mall-filled capital will be the hub.

Fans will not be able to do easily is hop across on a plane to the sprawling tourist resorts of Dubai, unless the United Arab Emirates and its regional allies restore diplomatic, economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed in 2017 over allegations denied by Doha that it supports extremism.

The IAAF and its local partners for the track worlds blamed the diplomatic dispute on the sparse crowds.

“You have to understand the political challenges this country faces right now, which was never envisaged when this meeting was awarded,” IAAF chief executive Jon Ridgeon said.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino tried in the last year to play peacemaker, shuttling across the region in an attempt to broker a deal that would spread the tournament beyond Qatar. The Swiss-Italian administrator discovered how the rift runs so deep that it cannot be healed in a flash by dangling the prospect of hosting some games.

But the compact nature of the World Cup should allow fans to attend two or even three games a day depending on the traffic and the new Metro system. Organizers are also planning to make tickets cheaper than the track worlds, where the starting point was almost $20.

The Metro line is still being completed to reach the stadium at Lusail, where workers are toiling in heat often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) to complete the 80,000-seat venue for the opening game and final in a city that didn’t exist when Qatar won the FIFA vote in 2010. A small shelter where the center circle will be offers respite from the fierce sun but not the humidity.

Players and fans, though, will have far greater protection during the World Cup. Not only are temperatures unlikely to exceed 30 Celsius, but every stadium features massive cooling technology that will chill players and supporters alike.

Qataris have been emboldened by some success on the field — beating Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on its run to Asian Cup glory in February.

It didn’t matter much to 16-year-old Mohammed Talal Almannai that the Qatari lost 4-1 in the first leg of the Champions League to Al Hilal.

“A lion starts small but then he becomes big and the king of the jungle,” he said. “That’s what we will be. We need to bring more people into Qatar so they can learn about Arabic culture.”

So much of the Qatari state’s strategy to project soft power has been about harnessing the adulation for sports across the world by investing in teams — notably French football champion Paris Saint-Germain — and chasing hosting rights to major events.

But the world track and field championships showed the challenge convincing the world that Qatar has a culture of fandom and can fill stadiums.

The next major test is when Qatar hosts FIFA’s Club World Cup this December and the following year as a testing ground for the sport’s biggest event.

“It will be beautiful. It will be wonderful to see the World Cup in Qatar if you like football,” said Michel Platini, the former FIFA vice president who voted for Qatar and was later banned in an unconnected financial scandal. “Football is more popular than track and field.”

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TAGS: Football, Qatar 2022, qatar world cup, Sports
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