Can Qatar follow Russia's World Cup act?
With the Iron Curtain of football complete, we can only wonder what will happen in four years’ time in Qatar?
This World Cup has been wondrous. A marvel for football, a triumph which has excited us all, especially when we're English. This is axiomatic. It needs no more validation than the pure ecstasy in which we've bathed for the last month. For all the cynicism thrown Russia’s way, they put on a show.
The question is whether the Qataris can do the same? Not everyone was terribly happy the FIFA Executive Committee voted as World Cup hosts a tiny desert nation comprising a 4,500-square-mile peninsula that looks like a thumbprint smudged on the Persian Gulf and has just one major city. Many questioned whether the tiny emirate fulfilled the criteria for hosting the World Cup. Deserts tend to be unbearably hot in the summer. The culture frowns on alcohol and has a less than stellar record on human rights.
After an initial inquest, the tournament dates were moved to the winter. European leagues didn't take that well. Its neighbours may not have, either. Led by Saudi Arabia, the neighbouring Emirates abruptly blockaded the nation by land and sea, claiming it supported terrorism due to its cordial relations with Iran.
Qatar is already memorable. As well as being the first winter tournament, it's also the last 32-team World Cup before the expansion to 48. Four years before the tournament we can already talk about the history being made. How many tournaments can say that?
As football fans, we want nations to develop and the World Cup is a platform to do just that. Russian football has come on leaps and bounds in a multitude of ways. Just two years ago it was that burgundy-clad clunky side that reveled in securing a last-minute point against England. Yet, they still made their exit at the group stage. Now, the well-oiled-unit exude confidence. Despite entering as the lowest-ranked side they mixed it with the best, going so far as to eliminate former champions Spain in the Round of 16.
Qatar will find that a difficult act to follow. On the other hand, the notion that the tiny country is not a footballing nation is simply wrong.
Qatari football has an incredibly busy schedule. They play in many competitions, the WAFF Championships, the Pan-Arab games and the AFC Asian Cup to name just a few. The Maroons tend to play in a tournament every summer and at every available juncture. While the clip of Fahad Khalfan missing the open goal is the most famous Qatari football moment, the nation actually enjoys success in the tournaments having won three trophies in as many years.
It’s unlikely package holidays to Moscow and Kazan will become commonplace but the World Cup has certainly shown Russia in a different light. For the most part a land, it's a land with individual landscapes and architecture, most of which have interesting histories to match.
The conditions have been largely satisfactory for the games in Russia. Not too hot, not so humid and usually held in interesting Russian Premier League cities with storied pasts. The World Cup motivated the government to recondition several club stadiums, restoring them to glorious condition. All save the Luzhniki will continue to serve league tenants after the tournament.
Qatar is a completely different kettle of fish. You don’t simply go out and play football there. It’s too hot. Whilst the locals might have adapted to 40+ degrees Celsius, I can assure you (living in Asia and all) that even commuting in that type of heat is a long drawn-out affair. Never mind conducting vigorous exercise. Games are played exclusively in the evening to escape the heat as much as possible.
The winter is closer to European summers, which reintroduces the scheduling debate. The big European leagues are none too happy to be asked to forego earning opportunities in their peak business cycle so that someone else can make a cash grab.
In terms of grounds, it’s all new. At present, there isn’t a long football legacy in Qatar. They are building new stadia or vastly expanding pre-existing venues. That’s okay if you’re going to use them after as Russia have and Korea and Japan did. Not this time, though. Qatar will disassemble theirs. Yeah, they won’t be there for long. One, in fact, has been designed so it can be removed easily. Why bother at all? One hopes fewer labourers will perish in the deconstruction than have in the early preparations.
If the stadia will be dismantled post-tournament, one can't say staging a World Cup will do great things for Qatari football. All that's left is to ponder whether the matches will be as compelling as this time around.
Only one match in Russia went goalless over 90 minutes. The final featured six goals in all. Can Qatar match that?
Will Messi and Ronaldo throw the dice a final time? Two warhorses battling for what would surely be their last time out. Will 2018 Golden Ball winner Luka Modric be out of prison in time for another go? Will Neymar still be rolling around? What colour will Paul Pogba's hair be? Will Kylian Mbappe be the real deal? Will football have VAR sorted? Will women be allowed? Will they be allowed to be themselves?
The questions are endless although few have much to do with Qatar. Which should make you wonder why FIFA has anything to do with it.