Saturday 2 February 2019

The haters have no place to hide

When Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010, it sent strong tremors sweeping across the established bastions of football.

From Brazil to Japan and from England to Australia there was a kind of shock and awe rarely seen after the allocation of a major sporting event.

Qatar, a country that always believed in punching above its weight, and unapologetically so, had pulled off a major upset. The FIFA World Cup, an event that is symbolic of the aspirations and of billions of people, was coming to the Middle East for the first time.

But as the initial shock wore away, it was replaced by jealousy and heartburn which manifested in the vilest of ways.

Football officials and politicians in some countries, backed of course by their powerful media, went on the rampage, spewing venomous propaganda, barely disguising their hatred for all things Arab.

Qatar became a victim of a malicious campaign that made for sensational headlines worldwide.

Suddenly, it was as if football had taken a backseat – what was on display was a demonstration of centuries-old prejudices about the Middle East, its people, its politics and the fact that Qatar was a geographically small country where the world’s greatest sporting event would be hosted.

Some of the stuff that people said and wrote for years after Qatar won that historic bid bordered on racism. They questioned Qatar’s sporting pedigree, they raised doubts about the validity of its winning bid and raked up issues outside the realm of sport.

That the country was blessed by Nature with abundant natural wealth in the form of enormous gas reserves was also referenced often in their unsuccessful quest to somehow paint Qatar in a bad light.

But while all this was on, Qatar went about its business quietly and efficiently. Supreme Committee Secretary-General Hassan al-Thawadi and his team took a proactive approach, engaging with the detractors with patience and diligence. Grace and dignity were at the heart of Qatar’s ripostes at various conferences and forums across of the world.

Qatar players pose with the trophy after winning the Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi yesterday. (Reuters)
Meanwhile, on the ground, work never stopped. Having promised to deliver all World Cup-related infrastructure at least two years before 2022, Qatar had plunged itself headlong into honouring its commitments. Construction sites sprung up across the country, dazzling stadium designs were unveiled, legacy plans, the kind of which were unheard of before, were put in place.

Apart from stadiums and other sporting infrastructure, highways, hotels, museums, a rail network all began taking shape, changing the landscape of the country.

On the footballing front, meanwhile, serious strategic groundwork was already on inside the bowels of the Aspire Academy, purpose-built to fuel Qatar’s sporting dreams as part of the Qatar National Vision 2030.

Headed by Spaniard Ivan Bravo, who was strategy manager at Real Madrid before, it put into place a series of projects aimed at producing champions in several sports, but with a special emphasis on football and athletics.

Even before the bid was won, Felix Sanchez, a rising young coach with the Barcelona youth set-up was hired in 2006 along with other emerging Spanish talent like Roberto Olabe, Mikel Antia, Sergio Alegre, Carlos Domenech, Alberto Fernández-Villanueva and Carlos Domenech.

Sanchez was tasked with laying the foundations for producing teams that could compete with the likes of Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Australia in Asia with the aim of regularly qualifying for the FIFA World Cup.

This was part of Qatar’s overall ambitions for the future – mind you the World Cup bidding process started only in March 2009, so the tournament was not factored in when the country began drawing its ambitious plans.

But the momentum Qatar had built by the time the bid was made benefited the country, and when the the bid was finally won it had gathered so much steam that nothing could have stopped it.

One major grouse Qatar’s condescending critics still latch on to is that the 2022 FIFA World Cup is being held in a country without a “football culture”.

What they forget in their enthusiasm to tarnish Qatar’s image is that that football, horse racing and athletics were the only sports Qatar was known for before it started diversifying in the 90s, when top-class tennis, MotoGP, squash and other events joined the fray.

When they talk about Qatar’s supposed lack of “football culture” they also forget the fact that the country had finished runners-up to West Germany in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1981 under the guidance of Brazilian coach Evaristo de Macedo.

If the critics cared to look back they would discover that on the way to the final at the Sydney Cricket Ground almost 38 years ago, Qatar had beaten football giants Brazil 3-2 in the quarter-finals and England 2-1 in the semi-finals. They would also find out that Qatar’s achievement then came despite the fact the country had a population of only 120,000.

Aside from the regional Gulf Cup, Qatar has since also won the Asian Games gold medal in football in 2006 and are also the reigning West Asian champions.

In 2014, however, Qatar’s foundation for 2022 was laid when Sanchez guided the country to victory in the AFC U19 Championship in Myanmar with Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Bassam al-Rawi, Tarek Salman, Assim Madibo, Salem al-Hajri playing a stellar role.

That these players starred again in the UAE, this time at the senior level, with Almoez going on to win the MVP prize, proves Qatar now have the base to excel in the 2022 World Cup when these players will be 26-27 and at the peak of their footballing prowess.

But importantly, the Asian Cup victory would have silenced Qatar’s detractors around the world, and also those in the immediate neighbourhood who buried centuries of familial, religious and cultural ties to impose an illegal economic and political blockade on Qatar in June 2017, which still continues.

It’s only poetic justice that Qatar defeated blockading nations Saudi Arabia and UAE before accounting for continental giants Japan 3-1 in the final in Abu Dhabi yesterday. It’s a conquest of telling proportions.

So much so that the haters simply have no place to hide.

(Source: Gulf Times)

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