Zidane energizes Qatar's 2022 bid

Publish date:

DOHA, Qatar -- It was like that moment at the end of a courtroom drama when a decisive witness is unexpectedly called, dramatically turning the outcome of the case on its head. Suddenly, the mood changed completely; suddenly, the verdict did not seem quite so clear cut. As a piece of PR it was a masterstroke. As a reflection of the impact a single man can have it was hugely revealing; a case study in convincing. For all the technical, objective criteria, for all the logical thinking, personality can still persuasive. Especially if you chose the right personality.

The Four Seasons hotel in Doha, Qatar. After three days of inspections, FIFA's technical team are about to deliver their verdict on Qatar's chances of hosting the 2022 World Cup, on what they have seen over the last few hours. Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the head of FIFA's inspection team, takes to the stage and announces that "from an organizational point of view, Qatar has the potential to host the FIFA World Cup."

So far, so good. "But," Mayne-Nicholls adds, "it would pose a number of logistical challenges. So far we have only had one tournament so compact as this -- and that was the very first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, with 10 teams in two stadiums. That was 80 years ago and the scope of the competition has changed dramatically. There are 32 teams, 80,000 people [in the FIFA delegation, teams, media, etc.], plus hundreds of thousands more. Currently, Qatar hasn't got enough transport or hotels."

And there it was. The death blow. An unusually blunt, unusually definitive statement at a stage of the process that tends to be mere platitudes. All around the room, you could almost hear the air as it escaped people's lungs in disappointed sighs. It seemed like Qatar, a country of 11,500 square meters and a population of around 1.5 million, had basically been told it was too small to host the World Cup.

It was true that the CEO of the Qatar bid, Hassan Al Thawadi, presented the concept of a compact World Cup -- in which fans would be able to attend two games a day rather than having to travel long distances between stadiums -- as an advantage, not a disadvantage when it came to him to respond to the FIFA statement. It was true too that as one perceptive questioner pointed out, to deny Qatar the World Cup because of its size would contradict FIFA's own stated principles. But still the verdict felt definitive.

FIFA had spoken; Qatar would not be hosting the 2022 World Cup. The atmosphere was flat. Disappointment took hold.

And then it happened. Qatar unveiled their surprise star witness. A video flashed up on the screen, telling the story of Zinedine Zidane, his rise from the Place Castellane in Marseilles, his humble origins, his Algerian roots, through to his two headers on the greatest stage of all, the World Cup final in 1998 -- a World Cup success founded upon immigrants, that did much to unite France. At the end of the video, Zidane's face appeared on the screen. "It is time," he said, "to bring the World Cup to the Middle East. Football belongs to everyone. It is time to give it to Qatar."

Then the lights went up, the door swung open and Zidane walked onto the stage. A ripple went round the room.

Much of the technical side of the bid had been covered in the previous three days, from an entirely new transport system -- Qatar's solution, said Al Thawadi, to the potential problems of a "compact World Cup" -- to a new development-turned-pretty-much-an-entire-new-town just outside Doha. From the country's extraordinary growth over the last 10 years to a commitment to sport, physically expressed in the Aspire Dome.

In turn, visiting Aspire -- a gigantic, indoor sporting excellence center -- was designed to show just how successful Qatar's sporting construction could be. Its new stadiums were presented too, almost all of which will be deconstructed after the tournament and sent to developing nations -- Qatari stadiums literally rebuilt in other countries as part of the bid's legacy. There would be, they insisted, "no white elephants." Almost all of them, except the as-yet not revealed final stadium, will hold 45,000 for the tournament and 25,000 afterward, the remaining 20,000 being re-erected elsewhere.

And then there was technical centerpiece of the bid, the answer to the inevitable question asked by everyone when the prospect of playing football in Doha in June is raised: the stadium cooling technology, able to keep the pitch and fans at 66 degrees Fahrenheit despite the absence of closed stadium roofs. A match between Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan on the first night had shown how effective it could be. Newer stadiums would have more advantages too: the cooling technology now produces zero emissions.

Qatar's 2022 World Cup Stadium designs

The extraordinary financial might and resources boasted by Qatar meant that the technical side of the bid was always likely to be impressive. And the final presentation to the inspectors (only seen by a small handful of journalists later) stressed the huge commercial possibilities of a Qatari World Cup, the opening of new markets, supported by the kind of wealth and political backing simply not available elsewhere. In contrast, it was always likely to be the less tangible factors that cost Qatar

But now, suddenly, it appeared that even the technical part of Qatar's case might be flawed. It had foreseen questions about climate, yet few anticipated FIFA considering the size of the country such a significant disadvantage and when it did, the case appeared lost.

Then Zidane arrived and began to talk. And when he did something shifted in the room. Not because he could resolve the technical doubts -- he couldn't -- but because his very presence helped to bridge other gaps. The emotional side of the bid always seemed -- from the outside at least -- to be Qatar's weak point. Now, suddenly, it did not. Rejection did not seem so automatic, the questions so cutting, so devastating to its bid.

How much of a footballing history did Qatar have? How much of a footballing culture? Was it really committed to the game? And why should we believe Qatar when it said it was? Did it really know what the World Cup was about? Who exactly was backing its bid? Go to Brazil or England or Spain and names, places, moments, immediately spring to mind -- football heritage. They deserve to have the World Cup. Go to Qatar and ... what has Qatar ever done for the game? Then there are the social and political question marks.

It is impressionist and flawed, of course, but inside that room it felt like Zidane's very presence hinted at, or maybe even gave, answers to some of those questions. As he spoke, there were answers; an emotional appeal as to why the Qataris should have the World Cup rather than why they should not.

Zidane, one of the greatest players to have played the game, whose image has become one that seems somehow -- despite the infamous head butt in the 2006 final, and other episodes like it -- to have become linked to questions of justice and honor, was defending Qatar's World Cup. Not just as Qatar's World Cup but as the Middle East's World Cup, as the Islamic world's World Cup. What has the Islamic world ever given football? Well, Zidane for a start. If that link was not always explicit, Zidane was here to make sure that from now on it would be.

FIFA's vision is about a global game, about taking the game to everybody -- that was shown by Sepp Blatter's determination to take 2010 to South Africa. If it is serious, Zidane said, it must come to Qatar. It must come to the Middle East for the first time, to the Islamic world.

Because of FIFA's decision to rotate by region, Qatar's bid also looks stronger than it might and its flaws look weaker, less exposed by powerful rivals. 2010 was in Africa, 2014 will be in South America (Brazil), 2018 in Europe (England, Spain/Portugal, Belgium/Holland, and Russia are theoretically bidding for 2018 and 2022 together but they will in principle only be considered for 2018). 2022 is between South Korea, the USA, Japan, Qatar and Australia. In terms of footballing heritage, Qatar is up against countries that have more history than they do but it is not up against a country like Argentina or Italy or Cameroon.

On the face of it, there are other advantages. Japan and Korea had the 2002 tournament; 2022 is largely considered too soon. The U.S. had 1994. That is also is too soon for some. And others within FIFA, obsessed with footballing legacies and a genuine need to "break" a territory feel that the take-off that USA94 promised has still not truly happened. Qatar, the Middle East, has never had the tournament. And the No. 1 sport in the Middle East, in terms of spectators at least, genuinely is soccer.

It is not yet clear who the favorites are. And Australia -- who has the stadiums, the infrastructure, a degree of heritage and has never had the tournament -- would, on the face of it, appear a daunting rival for Qatar. But when FIFA ended its statement, it appeared that they would have no rival and no chance: they were quite simply out of it. Zidane answered only some of the questions but with his appearance -- cleverly kept a secret and only revealed at the end for maximum impact -- he changed the mood.

The jury is still out and will not return until Dec. 2. No one yet knows the verdict. And for those sitting nervously in the Four Seasons hotel in Doha that is a success in itself. Two minutes before Zidane appeared, Qatar's fate had appeared to be sealed.