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Friday, February 4, 2011

Qatar Reaps PR Flop Not PR Boon from Asian Cup

Two major sports events in the past two months were intended to anchor Qatar’s image as a global sports hub and demonstrate its mastery in hosting major sporting events. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Two months after winning its bid to host the 2022 World Cup and weeks after serving as the venue for the Asian Cup, Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign is under scrutiny and the Asian Cup hardly passed muster.

Qatar this week dashed hopes that it would apply to soccer it’s in Middle Eastern terms visionary approach as demonstrated in revolutionizing the region’s media landscape with the 1996 launch of Al Jazeera and its elevation of Qatar above the regional morass, spotlighted by the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world, with its World Cup victory.

The Qatar Football Federation on Thursday fired its charismatic French football coach Bruno Metsu because of the failure of its national team to progress to the semi-finals in the Asian Cup. In doing so it upheld its adherence to a soccer policy that is guided by politics rather than the patience and long-term vision needed to secure performance. Qatar like all other Middle Eastern teams, who accounted for half the countries competing in the Asian Cup, didn’t get past the quarterfinals.

Add to that a Wikileaks disclosure that revealed for the first time that Qatari nationals were also involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the desert Gulf state seems desperately in need of public relations assistance.

Qatar’s public relations debacle and its failure to realize its ambition of making it to the Asian Cup semi-finals – even though its performance was Qatar’s best ever in an international tournament – contrasts starkly with the Gulf state’s increased influence in world soccer.

Asian Football Confederation president Mohame Bin Hammam, a Qatari, national, has called for an end to FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s 12-year tenure and hinted that he may challenge Blatter in FIFA election scheduled for May.

The Asian Cup was Qatar’s opportunity to silence critics of its World Cup victory who assert that the tiny desert state lacks both a soccer culture and a sufficiently large fan base to justify hosting the world’s biggest sporting event.

For many the Asian tournament was as much about the game as it was about Qatar. Rather than allaying fears, which Qatar has dismissed as sour grapes emanating from those who failed to win the 2022 bid, the Gulf state is likely to have given them a new lease on life despite its already built world-class sports institutions.

Qatar’s first major foray into hosting of international sports events was marred by the fatal accident in competition during the 2006 Asian Games of South Korean equestrian Kim Hyung-chil. Huge crowds seeking entry to the stadium in 2008 and 2009 when the national Qatari soccer team hosted their English and Brazilian counterparts raised further questions about the Gulf state’s management capability.

“Plastic glow-sticks were given to every fan to join in a light display at the start of the match. However, within seconds of the start of the display these glow-sticks turned into mini-missiles being hurled towards the pitch, often clattering into those in the front few rows. At the end of the match chronic transportations problems left thousands of fans stranded around the stadium for hours on end at the mercy of profiteering taxi drivers,” recalls David Roberts, who is doing a PhD on Qatar, on his blog.

If anything, the Asian Cup seemed a repetition of the English and Brazilian fiascos. Qatar was unable to fill the stadium in the preliminary round despite subsidizing tickets and offering free food and drink. Qatari national, who represent a minority in the Gulf state, left the stadium early whenever their home team’s goalkeeper failed to prevent an opposing goal.

To paper over the image of empty stadia, Qatar granted entry to everyone irrespective of whether they possessed a ticket.
As a result, some 3,000 paying spectators, many visiting from Japan and Australia to witness their teams’ Asian Cup final, failed to gain access to the match.

Roberts reported that some were reportedly manhandled by the police. In a rare criticism of its Qatari owners, Al Jazeera noted that the police’s conduct did not bode well for a World Cup that was likely to attract fans far more rowdy than those in Qatar for the Asian tournament.

To be fair, Qatar has 11 years to clean up its act. Its managerial issues are easily resolvable. Police attitudes may prove more difficult. Ironically, the wind of change currently sweeping the Middle East and North Africa may help it soften police attitudes by creating an environment in which governments have to be more responsive to their populations as a whole rather than only to small segments.


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