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12/15/2010 11:24 AM

Gulf Goals

Qatar Has High Hopes for 2022 World Cup

By in Doha

Many countries felt shocked and cheated when FIFA chose Qatar to host the 2022 football World Cup. But the event could give a boost to the whole region, and usher in a new era for the sport. Muslim clerics are even prepared to relax the country's strict rules during the tournament.

Shortly before the delegation from football's international governing body FIFA left Doha on Sept. 16, it was invited to a presentation in a pavilion. The cool, windowless room, furnished with cube-shaped leather armchairs and with lounge music playing on the sound system, could just as easily have been in Madrid or New York.

Atkon, a Berlin-based event planning firm, had spent months working on the 39-minute show that was now unfolding in front of the FIFA experts, complete with 3D technology and surround sound. Laughing children and wise sheikhs swirled across the screens, stadiums grew and the camera zoomed in to show images from the past and the future. There was even a daring simulation of an imaginary WM opening match, in which Qatar beats Germany 2:0. In one scene, Deutsche Bahn CEO Rüdiger Grube appeared on a yellow cloud and said, in somewhat broken English, that he was keeping his fingers crossed for Qatar.

It was all so convincing, attractive and real. When French football legend Zinédine Zidane appeared in the corner of the room after the presentation, the FIFA team thought he was a hologram at first.

The booming emirates on the Gulf are known for their elaborate 3-D presentations. Their rulers are crazy about the technology. And they have the money to turn simulations into reality.

As of Dec. 2, it is now clear that in 12 years' time, the soccer World Cup will take place in the desert nation of Qatar, a country that has never participated in a World Cup. The German tabloid Bild called it a "Qatarstrophe" while the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet described FIFA's decision as "the biggest football joke of all time." It was a scandal for everyone who sees football as a game for Europe and its former colonies.

Football, it seems, is leaving home.

Not Just Dominos

"So what?" says Uli Stielike. "It's time we realized that they don't just play dominos in the Orient." Stielike, a former footballer who played on the German national side that were runners-up in the 1982 World Cup, is sitting with his wife in a Starbucks café in the City Center Mall in Doha.

He is the latest former German national player to have found work in Qatar recently. Famous German footballers Stefan Effenberg and Mario Basler played briefly in Qatar, collected a million or two, then left again. Stielike has been a coach in Qatar for the last two years. He currently trains the Al-Sailiya team and plans to renew his contract.

His team usually plays for a crowd of about 300 fans. Going to football matches hasn't quite caught on among Qataris, who prefer to watch games on television, he says. "But that will change completely when there's a World Cup involved," says Stielike. "Nowhere are there so many sporting facilities per capita than in Qatar. The rulers here are the biggest fans. They all play football themselves."

Qatar lies in the heart of geopolitical darkness, located at almost exactly the intersection of imaginary lines extending from Afghanistan to Sudan, and from Iran to Yemen. FIFA may have had its own, obscure reasons for choosing Qatar. There are also good reasons to stage something other than a clash of civilizations in this afflicted part of the world for a change. "There is one thing people haven't understood," says Stielike. "The World Cup wasn't awarded to Qatar, but to an entire region."

More precisely, he is referring to the Tropic of Cancer, the zone circling the globe that extends from Mexico through Mauretania to Taiwan, a region that is home to many of the migrant workers who spend every day creating wealth in the Gulf. The Gulf's population of 146 million people includes at least 17 million foreigners from every country imaginable. If we include Jordan, Syria and Egypt, societies that are no less enthusiastic about soccer, there are 260 million people living in relative proximity to Qatar.

The Gulf Overtakes the West

The Gulf, one of the world's most globalized regions, is home to Indian investment bankers, British port logistics experts and German petroleum geologists, Iranian exiles, refugees from Sudan and Yemen, fortune seekers from Birmingham and entire clans from South India, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. It ought to be enough to fill the stadiums.

"In a very short amount of time, the Persian Gulf has become a collector of civilizations without parallel," the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk concluded during a visit to the region. The West has lost its monopoly on art collections like those of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. And since the decision by Zürich-based FIFA, it has also forfeited its monopoly on its holy of holies, the World Cup. The tournament is going where everything goes, it is following the money and following in the footsteps of the Formula 1 circus, cycling, tennis and golf.

Place and event have become disconnected. Anything can take place anywhere, provided there is enough money and the airports have been expanded as needed. The International Monetary Fund has predicted 16 percent growth for the Qatari economy in 2010. No economy in the world is growing at a faster pace.

Rules Will Be Relaxed during the World Cup

The Islamic cultural center Fanar stands on Doha's Corniche waterfront promenade, beyond the skyscraper construction sites. Its tower, spiraling into the pale sky, is designed to give "humanity a guiding light." Ahmed Ijas, the director of the center, suggested that deeply religious people book a trip to Mecca during the weeks of the World Cup. Ijas says that his remark was misunderstood, and adds: "We are pleased that the World Cup is coming to Qatar." It's just that certain rules will have be observed, he points out.

Doha's luxury hotels have been serving alcohol for a long time. The government is considering expanding the area where alcohol consumption is permitted for the duration of the World Cup. For four weeks, the holy Koran will be suspended in specially marked "fan zones," where beer and bratwurst will be served. This is what FIFA expects from Qatar.

One of the party zones is in Al-Rumaila Park, within sight of the Fanar center. Ijas doesn't have a problem with this. "Islam doesn't prohibit men from taking their shirts off. But they should be covered from the navel to the knees." But Ijas, who lived in England for many years, knows that after 16 pints, few fans can tell where their navels or knees are.

The country's clerics seem to have adjusted to the idea of being lenient for four weeks. There had been concerns over how Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi would react to the FIFA decision. The president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars lives in Doha and is known as a hardliner and an anti-Semite. But in his Friday prayer, the sheikh expressed his delight over the World Cup decision -- even after the ruling family had made it clear that a team from Israel, complete with its fans, would also be welcome.

Qatar's overall level of counterterrorism cooperation with the United States is "considered the worst in the region," the US State Department writes in one of the leaked embassy cables. But Qatar is one of the Arab countries that have issued visas to Israeli athletes, including 3,000-meter runner Gezachw Yossef, who attended the World Indoor Track & Field championships in Doha in March.

Too Much Cash

Allah has given the faithful of this tiny nation one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas. This is an even more attractive asset than oil wealth, because liquid gas burns more cleanly than oil, and demand is expected to grow.

Qatar has only one problem: what to do with its money. Qatar Holding, a subsidiary of one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, already owns Harrods, the London high-end department store, and parts of Volkswagen. The Qatar Foundation will soon be advertising on the jerseys of FC Barcelona, a deal which will cost it €165 million between now and 2016.

Last week, the German construction company Hochtief announced that the Qataris would acquire about 10 percent of its shares. As a result of the investment, it is clear that Hochtief will be building most of the World Cup stadiums and the world's longest link between countries, a bridge from Qatar to the island nation of Bahrain.

Deutsche Bahn AG, the German national railway, has been awarded the contract to build Doha's new 320-kilometer metro system, and a southwestern German company will apparently supply the air-conditioning systems for the World Cup stadiums.

As an exporting nation, Germany stands to make more money on the desert World Cup than it did on its own World Cup in 2006. Qatar's bid book, weighing in at five kilograms (11 pounds), was the work of the Frankfurt architecture firm Albert Speer & Partners and two German project development companies. Speer has designed eight of the nine new stadiums. If it goes well, "Qatar 2022" could trigger a wave of modernization throughout the region by the time the first match begins.

'I Wouldn't Bet on Qatar Being Eliminated'

The Aspire Zone sports complex on the outskirts of Doha includes the Khalifa Stadium, performance laboratories, a sports clinic, the Aspire Mosque, a swimming pool and a towering hotel that looks like an Olympic torch. It also has the world's largest covered sports arena, which cost $1 billion alone. It took less than 22 months to build the entire complex on the desert floor.

For Qatar's ruling family, the Thanis, Aspire is its strongest asset in the international business of sports. Financially strapped national teams, the Iraqis, for example, can train there for free. Since 2004, talented young football players have been trained there on a global scale. Most are Qataris and other local residents, but 5 percent are scholarship holders, mainly from Africa. The facility's 300 experts come from 60 countries, and there is also a branch in Senegal.

Andreas Bleicher is the sports director at the Aspire academy. A native of Germany's southwestern Swabia region, Bleicher once headed the German Olympic base in Leverkusen near Cologne. "I wouldn't bet on Qatar's team being eliminated in the group round in 2022," he says. "A player who got started five years ago as an eight-year-old will be of an ideal age by then."

Qatar pays for "Football Dreams," a worldwide talent-search program. Bleicher objects to the charge that the program is merely an excuse for Qatar to snap up African talent. "The boys have all gone back to their countries, where they are now playing on the under-17 teams in Ghana, Mali and the Ivory Coast," he says. The program generates goodwill for Qatar, which translates into votes in the relevant committees.

'A Dream World Cup for Fans'

Bleicher feels that the decision by FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, to "embark on new paths" is inevitable. "The opposing arguments are just outrageous. The United States and South Africa don't allow people to walk down the street with bottles of liquor in their hands. In Qatar, it will be possible, for the first time, to see several matches in one day, because everything will be reachable by metro or water taxi. This will be a dream World Cup for fans."

For Bleicher, the reactions are evidence of wounded egos and prejudice. "The World Cup can help improve the discussion of Islam and immigration in Germany. People will have to take a closer look at these things." It is hard to predict, says Bleicher, the many ways this decision could affect the Middle East.

Bleicher gazes at the empty, carefully designed world in front of the entrance to his academy. It's 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) outside, ideal football weather. Then he says: "It couldn't be taken into account during the application process. But now, of course, one could consider moving the tournament to the winter." A decision could hinge on the cooperation of the powerful leagues in Spain and England, which have no winter breaks. "2022 is still a long way off. But that has to come from FIFA."

Earning the World Cup

Qatar's national team is currently ranked 113th in the world. According to FIFA rules, the host country's team automatically qualifies for the tournament, even if the team has never even qualified to play in a single World Cup. For Qatar, the rule was its only chance to ever be allowed to play in the tournament -- a $4 billion ticket.

Venga Rajish, who is from India, believes that the price is appropriate. Rajish delivers groceries for a living. He is standing in front of Tawfeeqs Cool Stores, across the street from the Fanar center, with his fellow workers from Syria and China. He says that he will definitely take his sons to the World Cup, even if he is living in his native Kerala again by then. He is "coming back," he says.

Kerala, a state in southwestern India, would not be able to afford to build expensive stadiums. Rajish worked in Bahrain for 10 years and has been working in Qatar for three years. He works seven days a week, and is too busy to go to the stadium on Fridays.

But he loves football, he says. Almost as much as cricket, he adds. "We have earned the World Cup," says Rajish.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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