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Qatar keeps cool as heat is turned up

Qatar's quest for World Cup success

By Tim Franks
BBC sports news correspondent

"The thumb-shaped Qatar peninsula," warns the Lonely Planet guide (1st edition, published 2000) "is not exactly one of the world's major tourist destinations."

The chapter on the Qatari capital is even less enticing. "Around the Gulf, Doha has earned the unenviable reputation of being the dullest place on earth."

Ten years on, Qatar has been pricked into the most determined reaction. It has launched an attempt to stage the 2022 World Cup. It is a bid so improbable, it might just come true.

This is a country with a population of little more than a million, promising to fill 50,000-seater stadiums. It is a country of little apparent footballing pedigree, lying 108th in the Fifa rankings. And it is a country where, at the time of year the tournament is held, the weather can touch 50 degrees Celsius. Fifa guidelines hold that any temperature above 32 degrees puts players at "extreme" risk.

Qatar, though, believes it not only has the answers but an irresistible allure. Of that, more later. First, though, to the issue of players, coaches and fans suffering heatstroke by the plane-load.

The bid committee's prize exhibit lies off the E-Ring Road, on the outskirts of Doha.

Zinedine Zidane is an official ambassador for the Qatar bid
Zinedine Zidane is an official ambassador for the Qatar bid

This being Qatar, a place where money is not so much on tap as sluiced through a vast pipeline, they are not relying solely on child-sized models and whizzy graphics to make their case.

When the suits from the Fifa technical committee came for an inspection in September, they were taken to a 500-seater, five-a-side stadium that had been erected in a matter of weeks, in an attempt to prove that it is possible to play football in Qatar in the summer.

Fifa rules demand that World Cup matches be played under an open roof. Qatar's answer to that is to create a three metre-high bank of cool air in which players can play and spectators can watch.

The source of the air-conditioning can be found in the swathe of desert adjacent to the stadium: a "solar farm", where photovoltaic cells pour energy, year-round, into the national grid and where tubes of water are heated to 200 degrees Celsius, before their energy is alchemised into cooling vast freezer packs that sit under the stadium.

According to Lee Hosking, one of the architects from Arup Associates, the British specialists responsible for the design of the showcase building mentioned above, the process is zero carbon.

"Bring it on," he declaims, as the heat beats down, even on this November morning. "How much energy do you need? We've got it from the sun."

There are some unanswered questions.

For example, what might happen should the wind begin to stir the cool and hot air?

How big an area might you need for the "solar farms" that service the bigger stadiums (the PV cells off the "E" Ring Road take up about twice the area of the prototype stadium)?

And how expensive is it all (the architects were unable to say how much even this small stadium cost to build)?

It's the greatest ability to put the Middle East on a platform and for the world to see it for what it truly is

Hassan al Thawadi
Qatar bid chief executive

On the last issue, money does indeed appear to be immaterial. Some might baulk at the increasingly stringent demands that governing bodies such as Fifa or the International Olympic Committee make of any country that has the temerity to offer to stage one of their tournaments.

Oil and gas-rich Qatar, in contrast, appears to be standing, legs astride, mouth grinning, hands beckoning. It is offering to spend £25bn ($40bn) on a rail and metro system to transport fans around the peninsula. It is promising to dismantle its stadiums after the competition and transport them to poorer countries in the region.

All that is, to use the jargon du jour, the "vision".

But Qatar is keen to show that it is a player, even now. Some of these Gulf states prickle with frustration when they are derided as gold-plated baths of bad taste.

Qataris know that respect is earned by more than the size of their shopping malls. Which is why, on the most recent night scheduled for international friendlies, the game between Argentina and Brazil was not held in Buenos Aires or Rio but at the Khalifa stadium in Doha.

Ronaldinho sparkled and Messi ruled, watched by a stadium full of men in their sparkling white dishdashas, adorned with their Brazil or Argentina scarfs.

"We are confident and we shall do it," one beaming fan told me. "Inshallah, we shall bring the World Cup in '22." "Why not?" asked his friend. "Don't worry."

The message was clear: bringing a World Cup to the Middle East might be novel but it is not unimaginable.

At the same time - and at who knows what expense - a four-day conference of international sporting supremos was taking place at the Aspire Sports Academy in Doha.

Lionel Messi takes on Brazil
Lionel Messi lit up Doha when Argentina beat Brazil

As Argentine midfielder maestro Ossie Ardiles was giving local children a masterclass on the outdoor pitches, Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was singing the bid's praises inside the venue. The Scot described the promise to flat-pack the stadiums and deliver them to poorer footballing nations as "a key card" that will "pull the heartstrings of everyone".

In a way, so far, so predictable. All bids, these days, claim that they will provide amazing facilities and an inchoate thing called "legacy".

But Qatar's application goes beyond this. Hassan al Thawadi, the immaculately attired 31 year-old chief executive of the bid, lays down a polite but firm challenge to the conservative men of Fifa.

It is not simply, he says, that Qatar is the "15th safest country in the world - ahead of Switzerland or Singapore". Bringing the World Cup to Qatar will, he says, offer nothing less than an antidote to the toxic clash of civilisations.

"It's the greatest ability to put the Middle East on a platform and for the world to see it for what it truly is," al Thawadi says. "More importantly, it allows the Middle East to interact with the rest of the world, and any misconceptions that people in the Middle East might have about the West can be taken away.

"If there's ever an opportunity to unite everybody towards one goal, then the passion for football and the World Cup is the ultimate tool."

It is vaulting language: to claim a place among those whose mark was felt across east and west - from Alexander the Great, to Suleiman the Magnificent and now, so we are asked to imagine, to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalfia al Thani, Emir of Qatar.

That a country so low in the rankings, so hot and so small, can be one of the favourites to host the second biggest sporting event in the world after the Summer Olympics, rips up conventional wisdom.

But then, travelling the emirate, it is clear that tiny Qatar has a huge sense of itself.

It will find out if that belief is misplaced on 2 December, when it goes up against Japan, the United States, Australia and South Korea for the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

The Doha Port Stadium - an artist's impression
The Doha Port Stadium - an artist's impression

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see also
Qatar 2022 bid hopes suffer blow
17 Nov 10 |  Football
England withdraw bid for 2022 Cup
15 Oct 10 |  Football

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