Soccer City: Doha – controversial World Cup base

QATAR’s World Cup is rapidly approaching and there will doubtless be renewed protests about FIFA’s choice of host before the competition kicks off in November. Football is supposedly the most popular sport in Qatar and the national team was crowned Asian champions back in 2019, beating Japan in the United Arab Emirates. Doha, the capital, dominates local football, hardly surprising given around 80% of the country’s population resides there.

The western perception of Qatar has not been positive, hence the strength of feeling about their hosting the World Cup. While some might claim there is an element of Islamophobia about this, it is predominantly down to Qatar’s human rights record. Other critics of 2022 merely believe that a country with an average temperature of 28 degrees and a summer peak approaching 50 is far from being an ideal place to hold a major competition. The only way it could really happen was by moving away from the traditional summer calendar for the World Cup and staging it in the European winter, which will bring major disruption to domestic league programmes. The stadiums will have technology to ensure players and spectators are comfortable – we’ve come a long way since Mexico was viewed as a dangerous place for the Olympics and World Cup due to the altitude and climate.

Qatar is determined to give the World Cup its best shot, however, and their own team will go into the competition as Asian champions. But World Cup officials feel very aggrieved that sentiment has been so negative and point to the countless investigations that have taken place looking into the hosting process and any signs of corruption. There are issues that just won’t go away no matter how much they complain, such as the treatment of migrant workers and zero tolerance towards homosexuality, but unless something dramatic happens, Qatar 2022 is going ahead.

Doha, understandably, is the centre of the Qatar economy and is the headquarters of Qatar Petroleum, Qatargas and RasGas. Oil and natural gas are the major industries of Qatar and the country is a top four producer of the latter. Unsurprisingly, Qatar is one of the worst places in the world for air pollution and one of the highest emitters of carbon dioxide per person.

Doha clubs have won 40 of the 57 seasons of the Qatar Stars League. The most successful team, Al-Sadd, has been the club of the upper classes in Qatar. Founded in 1969, they have been champions 16 times and have won the AFC Champions League twice, in 1989 and 2011. Little wonder their nickname is Al Zaeem, which means “the boss”. The Qatar squad that won the Asian Cup included nine players from Al-Sadd.

Al-Sadd have just won the league for the second successive season and finished unbeaten, as they did in 2021. They won 20 of their 22 games and scored 80 goals, conceding just 24. They started the campaign managed by Barcelona legend Xavi, who left Al-Sadd to rejoin his old club in November 2021. His replacement was Javi Gracia and the Spanish connection also includes Santi Cazorla, the former Arsenal and Villareal midfielder. The prize for winning the Qatar Stars League is the Falcon Shield, which may sound like a superhero tool, but underlines the popularity and importance of falconry in the region – it is the national bird of Qatar.

Al-Arabi, founded in 1952, is the second oldest club in Qatar and their crest features a ceremonial falcon. They’ve been champions seven times, although you have to go back to 1997 for the last time they won the title. Their fans are very passionate, especially when they come up against their closest rivals, Al-Rayyan.

Al-Sadd’s big rivals are Al-Duhail, known as the “Red Knights” and only founded in 2009 as Lekhwiya. The club, apparently, has the biggest playing budget in Qatar. Included in their squad is former Tottenham defender and Belgian international Toby Alderweireld. Al-Duhail finished runners-up to Al-Saad in the league but held their Doha rivals to two draws. They also knocked Al-Saad out of the Emir Cup at the semi-final stage. Al-Duhail have long been considered the club of the working class people and have won the Qatar Stars League seven times, the most recent being in 2019-20. Another Doha club who haven’t won the league for a long time are Al-Ahli, a relatively well supported outfit who claim to be the oldest club in Qatar. Founded in 1950, their trophy cabinet has never been full, the only major prize they’ve won is the Emir Cup, which they have lifted four times. Qatar SC, based at Doha’s Suheim bin Hamad Stadium, dates back to 1961 from a merger of two clubs and have won the league three times, the most recent success in 2003.

There will be three stadiums in Doha that will be used for the World Cup: the innovative Stadium 974, constructed from recycled shipping containers with a capacity of 40,000; the Al-Thumama, another 40,000 arena inspired by the taqiyah hat; and the recently converted Khalifa International Stadium. All are very eye-catching designs and in the case of the 974, after the World Cup it will be dismantled and sent to Africa. The construction process has not been without its problems, though, as there have been a number of deaths among the workforce, the exact details of which vary from witness to witness. This has been one of the main arguments against Qatar hosting the tournament.

We are told Qatar is a football-mad country, but the crowds for the Qatar Stars League are poor and issues such as climate have been cited as a deterrent.  In 2019-20, for example, Al-Sadd averaged around 1,500 and Al-Gharafi just 266. Qatar, the nation, clearly has an interest, as seen with the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain and other club sponsorship deals. They’ve made progress in encouraging women’s football and have installed academies to develop young talent, but no matter how many well-known names they engage to tell everyone the World Cup is going to be great, not everyone is buying it.