Qatar’s World Cup challenge

i-3366ed3c306d3f698ac12985bf39317f-qatarcelebrations.jpgThey’re partying in Qatar after winning the 2022 World Cup bid. The rest of the world? Not so much (AP Photos).

Would you go visit a country to watch soccer that has wilting heat (even if the proposed futuristic soccer stadiums are supposedly air-conditioned), severe limitations on drinking (presumably expensive) cold alcoholic beverages and worries over women showing a little too much skin should they (gasp) choose to wear shorts?

And pay steeply for the privilege. Nah, me neither.

Bet you Brazil will be even more popular than previously believed in four years time as soccer tourists believe that’s the World Cup to attend rather than the Middle East or Russia.

Here’s more on the issue from the Associated Press and I’ll have more Tuesday in my weekly column:

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar won over FIFA with a promise that a World Cup in the Middle East would be good for soccer.

Now it faces what could be an even harder task: Convincing skeptical fans who fear the desert nation will hold a sweltering and alcohol-free tournament.

Some fans wrongly believe Qatar has the same social restrictions of Saudi Arabia or the
violence that plagues Afghanistan and Iraq.

Twitter was abuzz with such concerns immediately after Qatar was awarded the 2022 tournament on Thursday. Some fans suggested Qatar would keep women out of stadiums and many fretted they won’t be able to buy a beer.

They might be surprised to find a largely safe, cosmopolitan capital where celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay has set up shop, malls are filled with designer goods and the skyline rivals any in the United States. Women are free to work, drive and cheer on their favorite soccer team, as they did during last month’s Brazil-Argentina exhibition. Drinking is allowed, but mostly restricted to ex-pat havens.

Still, this country of 1.6 million is no Paris or Rio or even neighboring Dubai — and Qataris seem to want to keep it that way. Drinking and dancing is limited to the handful of raucous bars and nightclubs in four- and five-star hotels, public affection is usually tolerated but occasionally punished. Bikini-clad swimmers only began appearing on beaches two years ago.

Most understand, though, that the country will have to open up with the World Cup coming and find a balance between the modern and traditional. Organizers have already promised to allow drinking in designated fan zones and Qataris have resigned themselves to the sight of scantily-clad foreigners strolling through their streets — something that is frowned upon.

“I never wanted the World Cup in the first place because of the girls and the drinking. It’s
against our religion,” said Mohammed al-Sayegh, a 16-year-old Qatari dressed in full-length white thobe worn by most men.

i-84331e205acfcd6fb7a0fb97b320eb8f-apqatarvictory.jpgBut like many of his friends shopping at the Villagio Shopping Center — complete with an ice skating rink and canal network with gondolas — al-Sayegh supports the bid as a way to boost the country’s standing on the international stage.

“We want to take the World Cup, but we can’t take everything,” he said. “We can show the world that we can preserve our culture even if we host such a big event.”

Another Qatari shopper in the mall, 21-year-old Hassan al-Emadi, said he was willing to take the “good with the bad” that would come with the World Cup.

“The good will be that other countries know Qatar is a peaceful place and has the capacity to host big events,” he said. “The bad is the drinking in the streets. By 2022, there will be a new generation and when they see people acting like this, they will think this is the Qatar. It will be a challenge to keep our traditions.”

Most expatriates in Doha felt the tournament would be a success, but that some things would have to change — at least for those four weeks during the tournament.

“If you can’t drink beer, there is no World Cup,” said Bono Van Wyk, a South African who has lived in Qatar for three years and works for an oil company. “They will have to lift all the restrictions. People want to drink where they want to drink.”

Out at a makeshift beach on the outskirts of Doha, two fully clothed Muslim women waded into the water at a public beach, while several women in bikinis lounged on chairs at a private beach at the nearby Intercontinental hotel.

“I don’t have any difficulties at all. It’s very safe and secure,” said Lara Koujou, a
Lebanese national. “You have to respect the traditions and culture but you can go to the beach or the clubs. Of course, this is not Europe or America. I can wear a short dress at a club but not on the street. That isn’t the norm here.”

Most agree the challenge will be about changing perceptions of this Gulf country. It first
came to the attention of Westerners as one of the Pentagon’s Gulf partners during the U.S.-led battles to drive Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and later hosting the U.S. military’s command center for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It still hosts U.S. warplanes.

As recently as the 1990s, Qatar was a sleepy, port city that over the past quarter-century has transformed itself into one of the world’s richest nations thanks to the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves. It’s also a media hub for the Arab world as the home of the Al-Jazeera network, which is backed by Qatar’s ruling family. It has become one of the hot spots in the Gulf for sporting events, including a European Tour golf tournament, men’s and women’s professional tennis tournaments, the 2006 Asian Games and upcoming 2011 Asian Cup.

Ruled by the Al Thani family without any opposition, there is no doubt that Qatar will make good on its commitment to spend $42.9 billion on infrastructure upgrades and $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. All those stadiums, Qatar says, will have a state-of-the art cooling system that will keep temperatures about 81 degrees. Similar cooling systems will be used at training sites and fan zones.

Qatar has to address not only questions of its openness but also about its location in the volatile Middle East. Like most Arab nations, it has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Bid chief executive Hassan al-Thawadi promised Israel would be allowed to participate if it qualifies and earlier said fans from all nations would be welcome.

“We are a very, very hospitable place that welcomes people from all parts of the world,” he said. “Bringing the World Cup to the Middle East now … will feature to the world that the Middle East is home to a lot of people, it’s opening its arms to the rest of the world.”

Al-Thani also said the country was making strides in promoting women’s sports, noting how it soon would be starting one of the first women’s soccer leagues in the Gulf.

“This is another perception, another perception that women are oppressed in the Middle East and this is a wrong, wrong perception,” he said. “We hope with the World Cup being awarded to Qatar, we can change that.”

Check out some of Qatar’s proposed stadiums here:

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group soccer columnist and blogger Nick Green writes at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!