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Monday, July 18, 2016

The Qatar World Cup viewed from the other side of the globe (Guest Commentary)


A response to Charles Kestenbaum

Where one stands in the debate on Qatar’s hosting on the 2022 World Cup depends on from where on the globe from which one looks at it. There are cross-cultural and other striking reasons, why the 2022 FIFA World Cup should be played in Qatar despite outcries and claims that staging the tournament in the Arabian desert would be its demise.  

The awarding of the Cup to Qatar reflects the fact, that despite soccer’s European origins, it has over the past century become the globally dominant sport. Leagues, clubs and players across the globe have accepted rules and regulations laid down by Europe-based institutions that remain dominated by Westerners. Those rules and regulations govern international competitions.

In many non-European countries, soccer constitutes one of the few accepted activities outside the narrow boundaries set by traditions, religion, family, clans, society or political power. Because of higher birth rates in Asia and Africa, fandom outside of Europe is growing exponentially. This is not reflected in the geographic distribution of World Cup hosting rights.

With few exceptions, Japan/South Korea in 2002 and 2010 in South Africa, the World Cup has largely been absent in North and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South East Asia despite the fact that they represent a significant percentage of the world’s population. Fans in those regions have been reduced to watching the tournament on television.

Moreover, the requirements for hosting a World Cup laid down by world soccer body FIFA make it unlikely that the tournament will be hosted in any of some 100 countries that suffer from under-development, poverty, instability, turmoil, cultural restraints or simply a lack of general football culture. This effects both Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Qatar is the exception to this rule given its financial muscle, political will and projected ability to stage a World Cup. It is determined to live up to the expectations associated with a mega-media extravaganza of this size. If Westerners question Qatar’s intentions and ability, many on the other side of the globe are elated by the fact that for once it is not another Western, or highly developed country that will be staging the event. Qatar’s hosting give these fans a sense of belonging, participation and engagement. European concerns about culture, climate or league schedules are utterly irrelevant to these fans.

No doubt, Qatar is a small country with a citizenry the size of new European football miracle Iceland and a total population of some two and a half million. Qatar’s geographic size demands new logistical and infrastructural approaches to engaging the local population as compared to giants like Brazil or Russia. Small size in the case of Qatar means that the World Cup will affect all aspects of life, work, and society in the Gulf state.

In preparing and hosting the World Cup, Qatar is attempting to bridge the gap between its Bedouin and Wahhabi heritage and the corporate and accessibility requirements of a global event. In the run-up, multiple and at times seemingly contradictory processes attempt to merge valued traditions with the challenges of globalization.

Hosting the World Cup is part of Qatar’s National Vision 2030 development plan for a diversified knowledge economy that involves long-term economic and social re-structuring and the reform of an outdated social fabric. Qatar has already begun to address contentious issues such as migrant labour, inclusivity for all domestic groups and empowerment of women. This may not yet happen at the speed desired by Qatar’s critics but then modernization in Western countries during the era of industrialization lasted well into the 20th century.

Contrary to urban myth, organized football has been played in Qatar since the 1950s. Founded in 1960, the Qatar Football Association is as old, or even older than the next 74 national federations established at that time. Compared to its total population, more fans attend leagues matches than in many so called football power nations. In Germany, for example, on average one five hundredth of a percent of the population attended Division I Bundesliga games during the 2010 / 11 season compared to three tenth of a percent for Qatar Stars League matches in the same time period. Football fandom is as fervent among Qataris and expatriates as it is elsewhere.

Soccer has the power to sway national governments and dominate regional and global news. That power extends to the staging of a World Cup in a small market located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia.

Tilman Engel is a senior sports business executive and media consultant with for national leagues, including the National Football League (WHICH ONE?) and the Qatar Stars League. He also advises NATO’s CIMIC Center of Excellence in The Hague on positioning and communication of civil-military cooperation in collective defense Tilman can be reached at tilman.engel@sc-international.de


The views in this commentary are those of the author rather than the blog. The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer welcomes discussion and multiple perspectives


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