DOHA (Reuters) - There is a catchphrase that world soccer’s governing body FIFA frequently trots out when it discusses holding tournaments outside of the game’s traditional strongholds in Europe and South America — “developing the game”.
It is not, however, a phrase that appeals greatly to Hassan Al Thawadi, the man who heads Qatar’s organising body for the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in the Gulf state.
“The concept of ‘developing the game’, I think, understates the penetration of football. Football is everywhere, it is in every corner of the world. Football really is the sport of the people and the Arab world is no different,” he told Reuters in an interview.
The evidence for Al Thawadi’s view, has been clear during the Club World Cup in Doha, which concludes on Saturday with the final between European champions Liverpool and South America’s top team Flamengo of Brazil.
The semi-final clash between Premier League leaders Liverpool and Mexico’s Monterrey, drew 45,000 fans to the Khalifa International stadium, with the crowd mostly made up of residents of the Gulf state and others from the Middle East who had made the short trip for the tournament.
Al Thawadi accepts there is much progress that needs to be made in Arab football but says there is no question of needing to convince the region’s people of the appeal of the game.
“Developing the game — in terms of the level of professionalism, the engagement, ensuring that, just as in Europe and other places, it functions potentially as a job-creator and contributor to society, yes you can do that. But developing the passion for the game? I think the passion is already there,” he said.
To prove his point, while praising the impact of Liverpool’s Egypt forward Mohamed Salah, a hugely popular figure in the Middle East, Al Thawadi quickly rolls off a list of half a dozen Arab players of the past, who he clearly feels did not get the credit Salah now enjoys.
Behind those words, is perhaps a sense of frustration at how the idea of a Qatari World Cup has been received in the established football nations, where many questioned the wisdom of playing a tournament in a small Gulf state with little record of success in the game.
Earlier this year, FIFA president Gianni Infantino looked into the possibility of changing the structure of the tournament, exploring the idea of an expanded 48-team event, with hosting shared by other countries in the region, an idea eventually ruled out on logistical grounds.
But Al Thawadi believes the tournament will, in any case, be the first World Cup that is accessible to the entire Arab world.
“The Arab nation is a football nation. That is clear. But not many people in this region have had the opportunity to attend a World Cup. This is a chance for us to experience it. It is a Middle Eastern World Cup,” he said.
Nonetheless, if previous World Cups are any guidance, a large travelling contingent of fans is expected from Europe, South America and the United States. Qatar will add to its hotel capacity by bringing in cruise ships to accommodate the thousands of supporters who will flock to Doha.
Al Thawadi, who studied law at the University of Sheffield in England, has had to deal with plenty of criticism of the choice of Qatar since 2010 when the country was awarded the hosting rights.
Human rights and labour groups slammed Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, used to build new stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament and, while reforms have been welcomed by bodies such as the International Labour Organisation, Al Thawadi says the country is “always ready to improve”.
The World Cup has also raised questions about Qatar’s alcohol laws, given that international fans would normally expect to be able to enjoy a beer or two and the country limits alcohol sales to a handful of hotels.
At the Club World Cup, beer has been on sale, at a lower price than in the hotels, at a special fanzone. Although there has been no decision on whether to allow beer sales at stadiums during the World cup, that issue is under discussion.
“While alcohol is not part of our culture, hospitality is,” said Al Thawadi.
The 41-year-old is quick to point out that visiting fans left the 2016 World Cup in Russia with changed views about the host country and hopes that spending time in the Gulf state will help challenge some negative views about the Arab world.
“Football is not exclusive to one part of the world, to one culture, to one society, football is for all of us,” he said.
“Forget ideologies, forget utopia, what it simply does is it breaks down stereotypes and I think in this day and age, we need to utilise more these opportunities, to break down stereotypes between people. I think that is essential”.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris