Culture, stereotypes and challenges: Beautiful game’s unique journey

South Africa knows all about entering unchartered World Cup waters and being globally vilified for having the temerity to do so.

When the country dared attempt to become the first African host of the World Cup in 2010, there was outrage and incredulity around the world, and years of the most astonishing vitriolic international press.

With sunscreen and hats, “stab-proof vests” would be an essential travel accessory, some mainly European international media reported, for any fan who dared undertake this African football adventure.

The media relations job of ensuring balance from blinkered journalists, with no – or very warped – knowledge of South Africa and the African continent, was a constant one. It abated only when Spain left our shores with its golden prize and Shakira belted out her last Waka Waka.

Like Shakira’s hips, the statistics don’t lie. In a country with such a high crime rate, the frenzied pre-World Cup coverage was to be expected. Far too often, though, it crossed the mark, was crass and insensitive.

It took responsible journalism and objectivity to give the country a fair shake and to look beyond purely its crime statistics – numbers that pain, anger, debilitate and affect South Africans themselves far more than it would any visitor.

Any country looking to host a World Cup must do so for the correct, carefully considered reasons.

South Africa sought to show the world a “normal”, ambitious, beautiful and warm country, the strength of which is the calibre and character of its people.

It also sought to enhance its infrastructure, attract long-term investment and tourism, compete on an equal footing on the global scale, and showcase to the world a different side of its very negative perceptions.

When the African World Cup hurdle was crossed, there was further Fifa shock when Russia and Qatar were named in one go as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 editions of the tournament.

As if dodging the African bullet wasn’t enough, Fifa would now be heading to the Russia of global strongman Vladimir Putin, the Chuck Norris-style leader of a country famed for – and not afraid to use – its military force against even its own neighbours.

When it hosted the World Cup in 2018, though, Russia – with Putin at the forefront – turned on the charm offensive and opened its borders to the world’s football fans.

Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, said “myths and stereotypes have been dispelled” as the Russians played warm hosts.

Infantino added: “The virus of football has entered into the bodies of each and every Russian citizen. We all fell in love with Russia. All of us discovered a country we did not know.”

Despite a history dating back to Mesopotamia and the Ottoman Empire, Qatar is, in international terms, pretty much an unknown entity.

The smallest nation by area ever to have been awarded a World Cup, Qatar will become the first predominantly Muslim and Middle Eastern country to do so.

There were a myriad questions around the process of awarding Qatar the right to host the World Cup, including corruption allegations Fifa has investigated at length and cleared the country of.

A major issue too was its oppressively hot desert summers, around which time the tournament would normally be held, in June and July. That has now been allayed by the tournament being moved to a more favourable time – in November and December in 2022.

In such a small country, barely the size of Johannesburg, there is the added logistical challenge of Fifa looking to expand the tournament from 32 to 48 teams – a move it expects will add an additional $400million to its coffers, but which will make managing the influx of hundreds of thousands of football fans even more difficult.

One major challenge even Fifa is in no position to resolve is a major dispute Qatar is having with its Arab neighbours. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain have all severed diplomatic, trade and transport ties with the country since June 2017 over allegations it supports terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.

But its World Cup plans continue unabated, despite the major diplomatic feud that has caused even more heightened tensions than usual in the Middle East.

The 2022 tournament will be by far the most compact in Fifa history, with the eight stadiums to be used all within an hour’s travel time – and a 55km radius.

A recent visit to Doha showed many similarities between South Africa and Qatar, but also two countries world’s apart.

Qatar had far more time, at least double the time – six more years than South Africa – to prepare for the tournament. So it’s no surprise that the country is miles ahead of where South Africa was three years before 2010.

Whereas at this stage, South Africa’s World Cup stadiums were largely designs and plans that were still on paper, Qatar’s new Khalifa International Stadium has already been unveiled and the other seven are well-advanced.

The plush offices of the tournament’s organising committee on Doha’s West Bay, known as the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, are seriously impressive. Detailed stadium plans are ready, coming to life on screen in augmented reality imagery and videos.

The tournament’s plans are spectacular, with its innovative cooling systems to regulate match day stadium temperature to between 24º and 28ºC, crucial in the desert heat.

Modular construction will also allow it to scale down stadium capacities post-event, and “donate” up to 170000 demountable seats to countries in need of sporting infrastructure after the tournament.

Some of the stadium designs are stunning, conveying the beauty of Arab culture and hospitality. A favourite is the 60000-seater Al Bayt Stadium, designed to reflect the inside of a welcoming, brightly coloured Arabian Bedouin tent.

A favourite for Muslim South Africans will be the 40000-seater Al Thumama Stadium, with intricate designs representing the gahfiya – a traditional woven cap worn by males across the Arab world and beyond.

South Africa’s Brad Habana has worked in Doha on the Supreme Committee’s sponsorship team for the past five years, having worked on the 2010 World Cup Organising Committee.

“Most South Africans would not be able to point out Qatar on a map, but I really hope more people come out and experience the country. Qatar has developed considerably over the past few years at a very rapid pace. Road, rail and stadiums are under construction at the moment, all of them works of art physically and technologically,” said Habana in an interview at the Supreme Committee’s offices.

“We know what the 2010 World Cup did for South Africa, how it brought our country together and how it changed the perception of our country on a global scale. I am confident the same will happen for Qatar as it becomes the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament.

“It’s quite a unique experience, to be able to assist Qatar and share our knowledge and experience, and to help them over the hurdles we ourselves faced in the build-up to 2010,” added Habana, whose brother Bryan knows a bit about World Cups of an oval ball kind.

Qatar is a delightful heady mix of history and culture, a traveller’s dream if you are looking to combine luxury with old-world charm.

It’s a country where money is seemingly no object, with the highest per capita income of its citizens in the world, and the sovereign wealth fund of the ruling Qatar royal family estimated by MSN Money last year to be a staggering $335 billion.

In Qatar, no expense is spared.

“Qatar deserves the best”, the signs on the Doha freeways say as the luxury SUVs and sedans whizz by.

And when it wants the best, it makes sure it gets the best.

One of Doha’s biggest attractions is the Museum of Islamic Art, with installations from three continents reflecting 1400 years. It’s one of the world’s most complete collections of Islamic artefacts, including metalwork, ceramics, jewellery, manuscripts, glass and textiles.

The Qataris coaxed renowned Chinese architect IM Pei out of retirement at the age of 91, to design the museum as his final project. Pei is the designer of Paris’s famous Louvre Pyramid.

For this assignment, Pei travelled for six months throughout the Muslim world to learn about Muslim architecture and history, and to read Muslim texts to draw inspiration for the museum’s design.

And as you can imagine, Qatar does not just have any old tuckshop at the venue to cater for the palates of visitors. It called on Alain Ducasse – the first chef to own restaurants carrying three Michelin stars in three cities – to open his IDAM restaurant at the museum. It has an innovative take on contemporary French Mediterranean cuisine, with an Arabic twist, of course.

The museum is just across the road from Souq Waqif (literally translated as “standing at the market”), a marketplace selling traditional garments, spices and souvenirs.

Although it dates back more than a century, it was renovated in 2006 to conserve its traditional Qatari architectural style and is a popular tourist attraction.

Doha is a stunning city, no doubt, and Qatar a fascinating, largely untapped, unknown country.

Habana said: “We are in a very good state in terms of preparation.There is no need to be sceptical. Qatar is a beautiful country and one of the safest countries in the world. Tourism is key for Qatar, and I know the more people come and explore it, the more they will come back.”

Having lived in glass houses, South Africans are not about to throw stones.

Qatar will remain in the searing global spotlight over the next three years. Money being no object and having all the resources in the world is one thing, but the challenge now is putting the right people and operational plans in place to host the biggest event on the planet.

As a country that knows this uncertain, exciting situation only too well, South Africans will be following closely.

* Jermaine Craig was the Media Manager of the 2010 World Cup Organising Committee South Africa.

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