Qatar puts on a show

Doha// Brazil snatched Saturday's much-anticipated friendly from England 1-0, but the real winner may have been Qatar.

Despite 50,000 fans from around the Gulf cheering, dancing and chanting in a sold out Khalifa International Stadium, much of the action took place off the pitch. Match organizers Al Jazeera Sports and the Qatar Football Association spent some 5 million pounds to lure two top teams, build an entertainment center and display Qatar's readiness to host the 2022 World Cup, which would be the first ever in the Middle East.

“Everything has been very efficient,” Pat Brogan, a 42-year-old salon owner from London, said before the game. “Qatar Airways was fantastic. The transport has been good. The stadium's gorgeous and everybody has been very nice.”

Brogan and his friend Ricky Darcy have followed their team across several continents and had rarely been treated so well. “In some countries we were cordoned off and separated,” said Darcy, a 37-year-old social worker, referring to England fans' reputation for hooliganism. “In Slovakia we were greeted off the plane by policemen with big dogs. But this, this is the way it should be.”

But questions remained about whether this country of 1.3 million people – and only 250,000 Qataris – could handle the demands of hosting the world's most popular sports championship.

“In terms of infrastructure, I think they could handle a World Cup here,” said Mustafa Ramadan, an English citizen who recently moved to Doha to work as a schoolteacher.

His compatriots were less optimistic. “I can't understand how they could possibly do it,” said Brogan. “They've got one good stadium and a lot of desert.”

As part of the bid, the government plans to build at least two new stadiums in addition to Khalifa: the 86,000-seat National Stadium, to be built as part of the $5billion Lusail City project, and the Doha Port Stadium, a smaller, modular sports stadium with seating for 43,000.

Qatar's 2022 bid is aiming for “a completely new type of World Cup.” While previous cups have been played in up to eight cities, all the events for the Qatar tournament would take place in and around Doha. Organizers say a more compact event will save teams the hassle of constant travel and offer fans the opportunity to see more than one match per day.

Before Saturday's match, fans thronged the Fanzone, an 18,000 square foot festival set up outside the stadium. It included Brazilian, Qatari and English food stands, live music, a mini beach-football pitch, camel rides and face painting.

“This is fantastic,” said Steve Collins, 43, an Australian living in Doha for a year. He came with his wife, a friend and her two children. “This opens up Qatar to the whole world. They should do something like this every weekend.”

A traditional Brazilian Batucada drum band led dozens of fans dancing down the main thoroughfare. Kids played the latest FIFA Soccer video game on a 12' foot screen and a quartet of Buckingham Palace guards marched smartly about the grounds.

“It's been really nice so far,” said Camilla Delboni, a 23-year-old Brazilian who works on an oil rig near Doha. “They brought Brazil here to play – that's very good. But I don't think they could host the World Cup – it's too hot here during the summer.”

A key aspect of the bid is the use of low-carbon cooling technology to control temperatures in outdoor stadiums and practice facilities during the Gulf's broasting summer months. Along with modular tournament sites, after the World Cup this technology would be passed on to other Arab countries looking to improve their football and sports infrastructure.

“For this one match, they've done fine," said Waleed Al Harbi, a 30-year-old Saudi. “But during the World Cup it's different; where's the after party going to be?”

One key party to the bid is Mohammad bin Hammam, a Qatari who is president of the Asian Football Confederation and an influential member of FIFA's Exective Committee. Bin Hammam led the teams onto the field for Saturday's match, and recently spoke out in support of England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. Many believe he did so on the assumption that England will return the favor for Qatar's 2022 bid.

That support needs to come soon. Completed official bid books must be submitted to FIFA by next May and the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be named in December 2010.

This weekend likely boosted the Qatari bid – to what extent is unclear. On the Fanzone “Wall of Support” spirits ran high. “Good luck for Qatar!” wrote one backer. They may need it.

-- an edited version of this story appeared 18 Nov in The National (www.thenational.ae)

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