- Tuesday, June 4, 2019

DOHA, Qatar — Traveling the African continent in 2010 there was one uniting theme no matter where one stopped. South Africa was hosting the FIFA World Cup 2010.

Despite the nerve racking reality that stadium construction was still underway just weeks before the event was scheduled to kick off and despite the fact nearly everyone was certain the infrastructure intended to handle people and transportation had not reached its long-promised goals, stress was noticeably absent from the South African people. The overwhelming sentiment was pride. Africa was hosting the World Cup!

Whether 2500 miles away in the country of Cameroon, 5000 miles away in Ghana or talking to the people of Senegal, some 6300 miles away, all were excited about the World Cup being hosted in Africa. In fact virtually every one of Africa’s 54 countries referred to the month-long extravaganza as “our World Cup.” They saw it as an opportunity to showcase the whole continent rather than simply the property of the nation of South Africa.

Fast forward to 2019 and preparations for World Cup 2022 in Qatar. In contrast to the South Africa 2010 experience, the stadiums are being completed ahead of schedule and in some cases, under budget. The hotel options and public transportation infrastructure are coming together nicely. Also in direct contrast to 2010 however, neighboring countries are not celebrating the impending spotlight of the sporting world.

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt implemented an economic and diplomatic blockade against Qatar two years ago. Rather than celebrate a chance to show off their corner of the globe, they’ve made demands that Qatar forfeit hosting duties for World Cup 2022. Why on earth, given the chance to have several months worth of positive, upbeat news coming out of the Middle East in the lead up and playing of the world’s most popular sporting event, would Qatar’s neighbors want to stop it?

Hassan Al Thawadi is the Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the body responsible for successfully bringing World Cup 2022 in Qatar to fruition. He told The Washington Times it didn’t have to be this way. “Our bid for the World Cup was always intended to be an Arab Middle Eastern bid.”

According to Al Thawadi, originally the intent of the Qatar World Cup was to create an integrated economy with neighbors like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Practice venues for some teams could have been stationed at various places throughout the Middle East region, bringing not only teams, but bringing their fans as well. Hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations would have thrived for the entire region before, during and after the World Cup. Worldwide media coverage would have covered everyplace the fans were, in effect, creating billions of dollars worth of global marketing to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

FIFA even explored expanding the World Cup from 32 teams to 48. The result would have been additional World Cup games being played in neighboring nations, which would clearly be a net positive for everyone.

The ongoing Gulf Crisis however, put an end to the expanded format idea. In May FIFA issued the following statement: “In line with the conclusions of the feasibility study approved by the FIFA Council at its last meeting, FIFA and Qatar have jointly explored all possibilities to increase the number of participant teams from 32 to 48 teams by involving neighboring countries at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.” The statement continued, “Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now.”

Al Thawadi expressed disappointment that the blockading countries are putting politics ahead of the celebration of sport. “The World Cup is for the people, not governments. It is a chance to showcase culture and history.”

Despite the tensions in the region, the Secretary General sees World Cup 2022 as having the potential to be a transformational moment. In an odd way, the challenges caused by the embargo have brought out the best in everyone involved in preparations, from the biggest companies to individual workers. He even invokes what is commonly known as the American spirit. “This effort represents and embodies the American Dream, promoting entrepreneurship, innovative spirit and a never say never approach,” then he adds with a laugh, “We are the Mighty Ducks” a light hearted reference to the series of Disney movies where a rag tag group of youth hockey players overcome adversity to pull off a great victory.

The adversity may be very different than that faced by the Disney kids, but Hassan Al Thawadi clearly is hoping the fairy tale ending is the same.

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