Saturday, 29 January 2011

Can You Hear The Qatar Sing? No, But I Heard A Pin Drop!

As Qatar hosted its first major football tournament since the announcement that it had won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup Finals, you may have expected a certain level of excitement and optimism to be sweeping the country. On the contrary, the competition ended with a legacy of empty stadia and disappointed fans, in scenes that must cause concern for genuine football fans the world over as the implications for 2022 hit home. Have FIFA made yet another huge mistake?

The Asian Cup is not renowned for attracting massive publicity or huge crowds. However, group games played out in front of crowds equivalent to some non-league football crowds is disappointing even for this tournament. In the picture above, the only person visible in the stands appears to be a photographer. Is this what we have to look forward to in 2022?

China verses Uzbekistan (the game pictured) may not be the biggest draw in International football, but even the World Cup will have group games played out between nations of lower standing in international football than some. Will those games also be played out in front of empty seats and eerily quiet stadia? You have to wonder what harm may be done to the image of the game we love if this was the case.

It is one thing for group games to take place in front of crowds of barely 2000 fans. More worrying for organisers should be the fact that the final, in which Japan grabbed a goal deep into extra time to win the tournament for a fourth time at the expense of Australia, took place in a half empty stadium. China and Uzbekistan may not be a huge draw but you cannot argue that both Japan and Australia are anything other than fanatical when it comes to following sport. Something went wrong with the organisation.

More worrying still are the unconfirmed reports that up to 15,000 fans, with legitimate tickets for the final, were barricaded out of the stadium and unable to watch the game. Early reports are sketchy and as yet uncorroborated, but it appears that Qatar police prevented those fans entering the stadium claiming that it was already full (in total contrast to the evidence from pictures of the game). Not only were the fans locked out, but riot police moved in when the fans began to complain.

Riot police! This game was between Japan and Australia. Fanatical fans? Yes. Notorious for bad behaviour? Not at all. Can you imagine this had been a final between Holland and Germany or England and Italy? Can you imagine the scenes if those sets of fans had been locked out? I don't think the response would be on the same planet, never mind the same continent, as polite Japanese complaining. What would the Qataris do? Send in the army?

It is all very well for FIFA to be expanding the world game and moving into new frontiers. It must be done responsibly though. We have already seen questions raised over the timing of the event - questions that should have been answered before any bid succeeded. Now we are seeing serious concerns arising over the understanding of football and football fans in Qatar. These are concerns that need to be dealt with quickly and properly. If they can't be dealt with then FIFA must admit its mistake and look elsewhere for 2022.

2022 is a long way away. That is just as well when you consider how much Qatar has to learn about the latest toy it has decided to purchase with its oil billions.

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