Imagine a country so small it would fit into Munster twice and so rich that it could spend a figure close to Ireland’s entire national debt on hosting a football tournament, and you’ll begin to realise why FIFA World Cup 2022 is being billed as something very very different.
This, we’re told, is going to be a World Cup like no other. A spectacular money-is-no-object tournament in oil-rich Qatar that breaks new ground for football and delivers a fan experience so different as to obliterate anything supporters have ever seen before.
Think football in the desert with up to four games a day, spectacular new stadia located close together with high-tech public transport between them, a traditional Arab welcome, quirky accommodation and miles of sandy beaches.
If you believe the hype — and there’s every reason to do so — it promises to be the biggest show on earth, taking place on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf which measures just 11,600 sq km. That’s less than half the size of Munster which, by the way, comes in at 24,67km2 in all its glory.
“For all those who love football, this will be like a toy shop is for a child,” was FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s take on the tournament in a recent press conference. Even if the absence of Irish green diminishes the product from this corner of the world.
Not just a World Cup but a holiday
That doesn’t mean, however, that Irish fans won’t be in Qatar. Travel experts point to a growing trend of fans, families and friends combining an annual holiday with a sporting experience, and the Middle East provides an opportunity to take in sunshine, football and culture all at once. It may be winter there now, but temperatures still top 24 degrees which is more than warm enough to feel like a real holiday.
In fact, what better way to upgrade a winter vacation than by watching your team’s Premier League heroes take on the world in between trips to the beach, whether that’s Mo Salah for Egypt, Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal (if either make it there) or Paul Pogba for France. And, for those of a more cynical nature, there’s always a chance to join the ‘anyone but England’ brigade and cheer on whoever is drawn against Gareth Southgate’s side in April’s group draw.
Whatever your reason for watching, at home or in Qatar, Fatima Al-Nuaimi, communications executive director of Qatar’s supreme committee for organising the tournament, is certain the first World Cup in the Middle East will be a success.
“Fans can look forward to a unique experience. A tournament that will show the best of Arab and Qatari hospitality and open the doors to an entire region,” she said. “A compact World Cup, bringing them all together in one place, with the possibility of watching two games in a day. It’s a tournament for everyone, a tournament of firsts, and a tournament where everyone will be welcome”.
That last statement is highly targeted because of the controversy surrounding Qatar’s selection to host given its stance on equality and a poor human rights record — something we’ll focus on in due course.
Organisation and preparation.
But what is not in question is the country’s ability to organise a high-quality World Cup. There will be no last-minute rush to remove the debris outside new stadia and no transport projects unfinished as players take to the pitch.
Seven out of eight new World Cup stadia have already been opened and the eighth, the 80,000-seater Lusail stadium which will host the World Cup Final, is expected to be unveiled in January.
In addition, 82,500 hospitality packages have already been sold — that’s 500% up on Russa 2018 at the same stage, whilst 23 teams have already visited Qatar to select a base camp.
Several major transport infrastructure projects have also been completed to link stadia, with estimates that Qatar has spent $220bn on the tournament so far. That’s almost enough to wipe out the entire national debt of the Republic (€240 bn or $272bn according to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s budget in October).
It sets the bar for hosting a World Cup incredibly high at a time when most countries are desperately trying to hold their economies together in the face of a pandemic — which is something for Ireland and the FAI to think about as they discuss a potential joint bid with the UK for the 2030 edition.