DOHA: Sunday marks the point where it is one year to go until the opening match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with the tournament, played for the first time in a northern hemisphere winter, rapidly taking shape.
The opening match will take place on Nov 21 in the 60,000 capacity Al Bayt Stadium.
Kickoff will no doubt come as some relief to organisers as the football takes centre stage, shifting the limelight away from the numerous off-pitch issues, such as labour rights for migrant workers, that have surrounded the event.
Given Qatar is the smallest country in size (11,600 km2) to host a World Cup, and, as all the stadiums are situated in and around the capital Doha, supporters can attend multiple games on the same day.
Fans around the globe watching on TV can tune in to an unprecedented four back-to-back matches in one day.
There will be no repeat of the last-minute rush to finish stadiums and infrastructure, as was the case at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
According to the organising Supreme Committee, five of the eight stadiums purpose-built for the World Cup are complete.
Two more — the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium and Al Bayt — will be inaugurated during the Arab Cup, a dress rehearsal event which starts on Nov 30 and finishes a year to the day before the World Cup final on Dec 18.
The last arena to be finished is the Lusail Stadium — the venue for the final.
“For all those who love football, this will be like a toy shop is for a child,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said this week.
“There will be eight, state-of-the-art stadiums some of the most beautiful stadiums in the world within 50 kilometres (of each other), so it’s going to be great. The World Cup is an occasion to get to know other cultures and other people.”
Getting around Doha, according to the organisers, is not going to be an issue either.
“When it comes to our progress, we have completed 98% of the infrastructure works,” Fatma Al-Nuaimi, spokesperson for the supreme committee, told reporters.
Twelve months before the kick-off, the Qatari capital Doha, which is hosting almost the entire tournament, is dotted with roadworks and building sites that are causing chaos for its inhabitants.
With some Qatari infrastructure projects delayed by the pandemic, the clock is ticking more loudly than organisers might have liked, just as scrutiny of the preparations starts to rise.
Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has been controversial.
As recently as April last year, organisers strongly denied allegations from the US Department of Justice that bribes were paid to secure votes when the hosting rights were awarded in 2010.
The feasibility of playing a tournament in the searing Middle Eastern summer heat led to the event being shunted out of its traditional timeslot and played later in the year, while Qatar’s labour system has been strongly criticised.
The government of Qatar said on Tuesday its labour system is still a work in progress but denied accusations in a report by Amnesty International that thousands of migrant workers were being exploited.
Qatar has also come under fire for its criminalisation of homosexuality.
“Since we won the World Cup (rights) we have received a lot of criticism. There is constructive criticism that we tried to take on board,” Al-Nuaimi said last month. “We also try not to let this criticism stop us.”
A 48-page report by Amnesty, Reality Check 2021, said that practices such as withholding salaries and charging workers to change jobs were still rife. Qatar’s Government Communication Office rejected the allegations.
Players from Germany, the Netherlands and Norway have since worn shirts before World Cup qualifiers voicing concern over human rights in Qatar and there could be further protests in the leadup to the tournament.
Resource-rich Qatar has been active in other sports apart from football, holding the world athletics championships in 2019 and its inaugural Formula One grand prix takes place on Sunday, exactly a year before the World Cup opens.
But the World Cup, with 1.2 million visitors pouring in — nearly half the country’s population — is an undertaking of an altogether different scale.
Serious questions are being asked about where the fans will stay, with reservations already closed at Doha’s limited collection of hotels.
Officials have talked about providing floating hotels and promoting home-stays, while many fans will end up in newly built apartments and even air-conditioned tents.
Even so, accommodating such numbers — about 300,000 a day, plus 150,000 World Cup workers, according to one source with knowledge of the matter — looks difficult.
“This World Cup is being implemented in uncharted waters: there has never been a mega-sporting event with so many visitors and working staff in addition to the regular population on such a small territory who will stay put for the duration,” the source said. “There is simply no historic experience to draw from.”
Fans from the majority of the traditional big hitters will be starting to plan their trips.
Brazil and Argentina will be there, while the first European group qualification phase is over with holders France sailing through.
Uruguay could be a notable absentee given their poor form in qualification, while the last two European champions Italy and Portugal must negotiate a tricky 12-team European playoff system to compete in the finals.
Expectations are low for Qatar, who will make their World Cup debut after qualifying as hosts, despite their impressive Asian Cup victory in 2019.
Meanwhile, Qatar has pledged to vaccinate fans who are not inoculated against Covid-19, while FIFA has moved to allay concerns about the availability of alcohol in the Muslim country, where it is largely banned.
“[Alcohol] will be available in designated areas during the upcoming FIFA World Cup,” a FIFA spokesperson said.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2021