Arts, culture & society | Asia, The World

9 November 2020

If it hopes to make the best of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Qatar must prove to football fans it is COVID-safe enough for them to attend, Simon Chadwick writes.

When constructing new sports stadiums, there has long been a mantra that ‘if you build it, they will come’. In essence, this means that crowds will instinctively be drawn to a new venue to experience the gleaming facilities and the great sport staged inside it.

If this mantra is true, then Qatar can look forward to 2022 in anticipation of large groups of football fans heading to the country for the World Cup. Or can it?

Critics often question whether new facilities alone are sufficient to entice large numbers of people to engage with sport, and for Qatar this seems especially the case. In the 10 years since it was revealed as the host of 2022’s global football showcase, many people have questioned the legitimacy of Qatar’s right to host the competition.

Allegations of bribery, concerns about the treatment of immigrant workers, and arguments that the country has no established football culture have dominated global discussion of the coming World Cup. As a consequence, some football fans have felt disengaged from Qatar 2022, raising doubts about whether they will attend the tournament.

Cynicism about Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup hasn’t been helped by a re-scheduling from its normal early Northern Hemisphere summer slot to a late Autumn, pre-Christmas one. However, such concerns are typically expressed by those in the global North, that is, by fans who are not used to norms of football, usually aimed at pleasing them, being challenged.

Indeed, when FIFA’s World Club Championship was held in Doha during 2019, while European fans were in the minority, the profusion of Latin American supporters that travelled to the city was notable. It is worth remembering as well that at the 2018 World Cup, 60,000 Chinese fans were in Russia – more fans than England, whose national team reached the semi-final stage.

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Even so, ongoing diplomatic issues with near neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt are a problem for Qatar. Saudi Arabia is a regional football powerhouse, matches there often attracting large crowds of fans, many of whom would normally be likely to travel across Qatar’s only land border to watch matches.

Egypt too is known for its large, passionate football fan base, and it remains to be seen how many of them will feel inclined to travel across the Middle East to their small neighbour.

The UAE, notably Dubai, is especially important in such matters. Before a blockade of Qatar was imposed in 2017, Dubai, the world’s biggest airport, was an important transit point for football fans travelling across the world. This route of entry into Qatar is currently unavailable; indeed, right now there is effectively only one way in and one way out of Doha – through Hamad International Airport by Qatar Airways.

This year, with the global airline industry struck down by the effects of COVID-19, the Qatari government has already bailed out its national airline with subsidies amounting to billions of dollars.

The ultimate success of the 2022 World Cup and its legacies are more closely intertwined with the long-term health of Qatar Airways than many football fans might realise. An ailing Qatar Airways could undermine the upcoming tournament.

Yet it is the pandemic itself that poses the biggest threat to any Qatari prediction that ‘if you build it, they will come’. The sporting world has already seen several sport mega-events cancelled, and others being rescheduled – most notably the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Late staging of the 2022 World Cup does provide some breathing space for Qatar and FIFA, but as we are now seeing, there have been several false dawns across the world of sport.

For instance, as the English football season got underway in September, test cases were being run whereby small numbers of fans were allowed into stadiums. By the start of October, the tests were abandoned and matches returned to being played behind closed doors. In the case of Formula 1 races and Grand Slam tennis tournaments, events have already gone ahead but without the presence of spectators.

Event organisers across the world have generally demonstrated a high regard for the health and safety of both fans and participants. One reason for this is that many of them are fearful that they will be accused of spreading the virus. Atalanta’s UEFA Champions League game against Valencia earlier this year has become notorious for this reason, inflicting not inconsiderable reputational damage upon the decision makers involved.

Qatari World Cup organisers will surely be mindful of the tournament’s reputation and their responsibilities, though it is important as well to remain mindful of peoples’ concerns about the virus. In one study undertaken in the United States at the start of the pandemic, 72 per cent of the sports fans surveyed indicated that they would not return to watch sport in a stadium until a coronavirus vaccine is available.

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With such concerns in mind, sports across the world are to be applauded for their ingenuity in adapting to a challenging operating environment. From Formula E staging virtual races through to Zoom walls at football matches, fans have very quickly learnt to consume sport in new and sometimes very different ways. Still, many fans miss the experience of being there, standing next to others, cheering for their team.

All of this change poses some profound and complex issues for Qatar, a country that has spent billions of dollars staging the 2022 World Cup – an event that is helping drive the country’s national development strategy and is intended to deliver a tangible return on investment.

A tournament without fans would be a major blow to the country, not least in terms of the event’s immediate economic impact and its longer-term legacies. Equally, the ramifications for Qatari soft power and its nation-branding aspirations would also be at risk.

The challenge between now and the middle of 2022 World Cup is thus for Qatar to prove itself COVID-safe enough to stage such an event. This will involve understanding attitudes and behaviours among fans worldwide, and responding in a way that allays their fears about travelling to the country. This is also not just a matter of the pandemic, but also about broader preconceptions and stereotypes that people have about Qatar.

Having built iconic stadiums and impressive accompanying infrastructure, the government in Doha needs to ensure, rather than assume, that fans will come. The next 18 months are going to be crucially important for Qatar, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, and everyone in world football that wants a successful 2022 World Cup.

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