Can Qatar win the World Cup?
The hangdog expression on the face of the future British king betrayed the truth long before Sepp Blatter opened the envelopes containing the names of the winning hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
England’s technically brilliant but politically obdurate bid had fallen short of Russia’s lucrative pitch. After all, a World Cup in Russia promised a huge, new untapped market for football, and not even the combined last minute efforts of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron – if only the decision lay in the hands of middle-aged women who read the Daily Mail – could do anything about it.
For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed, the accusations of vote-buying from The Sunday Times, dark voices opining that vote collusion was rife – the result really wasn’t a surprise. But the next envelope was.
When Qatar announced it was to bid to host the 2022 World Cup, it was seen as little more than a joke. For all the talk of new stadia to be shipped to the developing world after the final whistle and a Middle Eastern détente through football, there was one inescapable fact – a Qatari summer’s day can hit 50 degrees Celsius. If a stadium full of people sat and watched football for two hours in that, everyone – especially the players – would be knocking on death’s door. The original bid made fantastical plans for zero-carbon air-conditioning to overcome that problem. But now figures including Sepp Blatter and UEFA’s Michel Platini have seemingly backed moving the World Cup to the winter. The season shifting plan is another example of Qatari football’s ability to seemingly overcome any obstacle through a mixture of money, cunning and strategic thinking. But as if whipping the tournament out from under the nose of the United States and Australia wasn’t audacious enough, it seems that Qatar is planning on using the same techniques to actually win the trophy on home soil.
Since 2004 Qatar has pumped billions into sport, and especially football, not just in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup, but to put its flag in the sand and proclaim itself a nation to be taken seriously. They have taken a circuitous route, and failed on numerous occasions, but when it was clear that Mohammed couldn’t go to the mountain, in the end, the mountain came to Mohammed.
Route one: Import foreign talent > inspire local players > qualify for World Cup
2005, Doha. Manfred Hoener shakes my hand as if he wishes to see my arm detached from its socket. The German coach had led something of a nomadic experience in football, spending the last few decades in countries such as Peru and Nigeria. But in Qatar he had a wholly different brief: to sign the biggest stars possible to play in the country’s cash-rich Q-League.
“Since 2004 Qatar has pumped billions into sport, and especially football”
He had already persuaded the likes of former Dutch international footballers Ronald and Frank de Boer, World Cup winner Marcel Desailly and Argentine legend Gabriel Batistuta to make the trip to Qatar on tax-free wages that dwarfed what they would get in Europe. The money was so good that Desailly, who had played at the very highest level for AC Milan and Chelsea, could pretty much live off it for the next two decades.
“[My wife said] ‘Go on [go to Qatar]. We lose one year and we’ll gain 20,’” Desailly said in an interview at the Al Gharafa training ground. “People work until they are 55 years old and I can give up after one year and start a new life.”
The plan was to try to raise the standard of the Qatari footballers that played with these high profile names. But it didn’t work out like that. Fewer and fewer big names arrived, often opting instead for a more familiar culture in the USA (today only former Wigan defender Mario Melchiot would be considered a recognisable star in what has been rebranded the Qatar Stars League). Qatar’s national team plummeted in the FIFA rankings from 61st in the world in 2004, when the huge investment in football began, to 114th today. Hoener resigned. So a new plan was hatched.
Route two: Uncapped foreign players move to Qatar > get passports > score goals > Qatar qualifies for World Cup
Qatar has long had pedigree in taking sportsmen and women from other countries and making them their own, especially in athletics. Prior to the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, the Gulf state employed a strategy of naturalising South American footballers. One case involved the Brazilian player Ailton. The Werder Bremen striker had been the top scorer in the Bundesliga, one of the best leagues in Europe, yet had never been picked by Brazil. Qatar stepped in and offered him the chance to play international football, for a reported $1million.
“[Naturalisation is] probably the only means to one day qualify for a World Cup,” explained then Qatar national coach Philippe Troussier to French newspaper L’Equipe, implying the only other way for Qatar to qualify – hosting the tournament – was preposterous. “Naturalisations are nothing new to Qatar, 80 per cent of my squad were not born in Qatar.”
FIFA recoiled at the move, even raising the length of time a player has to live in a country before he can qualify to play for his adopted team to five years, but that didn’t stop Qatar looking elsewhere. Today, Uruguay-born forward Sebastián Soria is the team’s star striker. But the naturalisations haven’t always gone to plan. When the Brazil-born midfielder Emerson – not to be confused with the decorated former Brazil international – was naturalised and included in the squad to help bolster Qatar’s chances of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, few eyebrows were raised. After a qualifier in Dubai in which Qatar beat Iraq – a team that had won the 2007 Asian Cup as their country burned, bringing back a semblance of national unity, and for whom World Cup qualification meant more than just sporting achievement – it turned out that Emerson had played for Brazil’s Under-20 team and was ineligible.
FIFA’s rules state that a team fielding an ineligible player must forfeit the three points. But FIFA refused to hand victory to Iraq. Why? Because Iraq had not paid the fee for the appeal in time. Qatar went on to the last stage of qualification, falling at the final hurdle, and Iraq was eliminated. But still it seemed that if Qatar wanted to inject foreign life into their local team they needed younger blood.
Route three: Qualify as host nation > spot talent in developing world >o ffer new life in Qatar >score goals > win the World Cup
In 2006 Pele and Maradona opened Aspire, a sports academy charged with picking up talented young sports men and women in Africa, Asia and South America, training them, educating them and giving them a route on to the world stage.
A designated football programme, now known as Football Dreams, was set up in 2007 to identify and nurture the best potential future footballers in developing countries. While its aims are laudable, the programme hasn’t been without controversy. In 2022, the graduates from Aspire’s first intake will be 30, prime footballing age. And while the Football Dreams programme explicitly states that naturalising future Qatari internationals isn’t the aim of the programme, they could choose to represent the country if they so wish.
“When making agreements, we are not requiring them to play for Qatar,” said Aspire sports director Andreas Bleicher two years ago at a press conference in Africa. “We leave it up to them. A player might be here for five years, and if he wants to play for Qatar, it is upon the player concerned.”
“In 2022, the graduates from the Aspire academy’s first intake will be 30, prime footballing age”
Already the first Aspire graduate, Guinea-born Daniel Gouma is on the fringes of the Qatari team. African football journalists are, as you’d expect, less than happy with what they view as the poaching of the continent’s talent. But Qatar’s investment in developing countries might also have been one of the key reasons it won the bid for 2022. Much of Aspire’s money has been spent in countries like Guatemala, Paraguay and Thailand, three countries represented on FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee, or ExCo, the body that voted on who would stage the 2022 World Cup.
“Qataris and their proxies were quietly at work in the home countries of many of the FIFA executive committee members,” wrote ESPN’s Brent Latham, explaining how the Qatari, rather than the US bid, won the 2022 World Cup bid. “There, they found ways to serve federations in the developing world in practical, even commendable programs that seem to have won many friends and influenced a lot of people at all levels of the soccer world.”
What odds would you get for a mixed team of Qataris, and the new Drogbas, Essiens et al, coached by, say, Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola – who played in Qatar, was an ambassador for the Qatar bid and, as a proud Catalan, unlikely to coach his native Spain – actually winning the thing? It may sound ridiculous. But, then again, if you’d predicted in 2000 that the 2022 World Cup would be held in a sun-scorched country the size of Yorkshire, whose total population is a fifth of London’s, that has never qualified for the tournament and where one of the host cities doesn’t even exist yet, you’d have been laughed out of town.
James Montague is the author of ‘When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone’ (Mainstream), a book about football and politics in the Middle East.
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