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A global showcase like no other

Lusail Iconic Stadium, the signature piece of the eight stadiums that will host matches at Qatar 2022. The 80,000-seat stadium is the venue for the final on December 18 as well as nine matches in the group stage and knockout stage (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

When the name “Qatar” first appeared in the running order as a contender to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup almost 12 years ago to the day, few observers thought anything of it. Competing against successful former hosts United States, South Korea and Japan, as well as Australia, the Arab state was given no more than a puncher’s chance.

Besides, with the world governing body determining to choose venues for two World Cups at the same 2010 sitting of the executive committee, the issue of the 2018 showpiece seemed more pressing. And it was that which presented a turn-up for the books, particularly when England’s “holy trinity” of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron were literally left red-faced after the bid from the “home of football” went out embarrassingly in the first round of voting by Sepp Blatter’s men on the take.

It was a contentious bid process ultimately won by Russia, which in hindsight looks dreadful business by world football, not only for the scrutiny it invited on the higher-ups at Fifa — resulting in criminal investigations and resignations —but also for what has transpired in the past nine months, now that the warmongering Vladimir Putin has fully shown his hand.

In 2010, Qatar had very little sporting profile, save for a handful of predominantly African athletes who were paid princely sums to change nationality and represent the desert state on the global stage. But to attain more wide-scale relevance, the biggest prize of them all needed to be attracted, and with money being no option, heads were clearly turned.

With Russia having already seen off bid rivals England, Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium, the knockout blow was landed when Qatar got the nod for 2022. But whereas Russia had a history in football and could be seen as a palatable alternative independent of the evil despot factor, Qatar did not even have a stadium considered to be world-class, which meant it would have to build as many as 12 new facilities.

It did, and how it did so is one of the focal points around Qatar 2022 as we approach historically the most highly anticipated four weeks in world sport, save for the Olympic Games.

A critical lens has been shone on Qatar, predominantly from Western media, for the disruption that it has brought to the domestic European football scene with a first winter World Cup, but significantly for its record on human rights.

While a swath of that attention has revolved around the non-existence of LGBTQ+ rights in that region, and for good reason, what resonates most is the reported 6,500 lives lost of low-paid migrant workers in the construction boom that has reshaped the gas-rich nation, not restricted to the building of those gleaming new football facilities — and Qatar’s resistance to atone fully by way of compensation to the families of the deceased.

So, I will be heading over to Doha from the end of the group stage through to the final. Aptly typical, given my predilection for difficult assignments, that my first World Cup experience in person would be the most controversial of the 21 that have come before it.

It is undecided if I will be keeping a diary, but I shall be paying close attention to our Qatari hosts, mindful that they will be wanting to put their best foot forward with the world watching.

Alas, Fifa pleaded with the playing countries last week that they should focus on football rather than politics, so with that in mind comes a script flip to the Greatest Show on Earth.

The early signs are iffy, with there already having been a few public relations own goals committed by the host nation.

As far as the actual football goes, the heart says Brazil but the head says ... err ... Brazil.

Unbeaten in competitive football since the Copa America final in July 2021 that brought Lionel Messi his first trophy in an Argentina shirt, coach Tite’s Samba dancers arrive in Doha battle-tested, having negotiated historically the most arduous World Cup qualifying campaign and confident that the European hegemony of the past four tournaments can be broken.

Equally, Argentina are right to feel that this could be the time to add to their two titles.

But that is pretty much it by way of genuine South American contenders, while Europe has a number of live threats led by defending champions France, Spain and Belgium.

Leading the dark horses are 2018 finalists Croatia, Holland and England, the 2018 semi-finalists and Euro 2020 finalists who have discovered a recent knack for showing up at tournament time, albeit that the quality of their football and a dreadful Uefa Nations League run that ended in relegation from the top tier do not necessarily scream out “world champions in waiting”.

But how many times could that be said about Germany teams, and yet they’ve got to a record eight finals, winning four.

The 2022 vintage under Hansi Flick similarly doesn’t set the pulses racing, but you know the saying about the Germans and football: “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

So it’s a veritable toss-up.

For the punters, a price of 4-1 against Brazil dancing away with a sixth world title looks far too skinny. And with few others making an incontrovertible case for inclusion at the top table, including France, an each-way flutter on sentimental favourites Christian Eriksen and Denmark at 33-1 in places wouldn’t look amiss.

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Published November 18, 2022 at 12:09 pm (Updated November 18, 2022 at 12:09 pm)

A global showcase like no other

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