Exclusive: Sport is within our DNA, insists Qatar 2022 chief

Monday, 17 December 2012
Andrew Warshaw in Doha

qatar world cup trophyDecember 17 - Pinned to a wall in the engine room of Qatar's 2022 World Cup headquarters in downtown Doha is a detailed planner outlining what is headed "Programme Wide Masterplan: Stage One Draft."

Hassan Al-Thawadi, the public face of Qatar's bid and now head of the 2022 Supreme Committee, who is running the show, quickly intervenes to point out that this complex chart of diagrams and arrows is not for public consumption - except to certain staff and consultants already recruited.

But if anyone had any misgivings about Qatar's ability to pull off what many believe is mission impossible, this operational blueprint - covering infrastructure, stadium construction, environment, transport and a host of other organisational features - provides an immediate insight into the work that is already being carried out to bring the World Cup to the Gulf a decade from now.

As does the soon-to-be-released strategy document which covers, over 44 pages, the next three years, setting out operational goals and objectives of Qatar's programme during the initial 2012-2015 period.

It is a complicated read but a useful exercise in ascertaining how out of the box, if you like, Qatar is thinking.

Legal and security committees have already been set up to provide crucial advice and feedback, all designed to create a positive impact and enhance the fan experience both at the stadiums and in entire neighbourhoods.

It seems a tall order, particularly given Doha's horrendous traffic congestion, which, at peak times, can take you an hour to go a mere five miles.

That, insists Al-Thawadi, will change completely once an entire metro and road network is constructed, with the first signs of progress likely to be sometime in 2014.

Hassan Al-Thawadi 171212Hassan Al-Thawadi was the public face of Qatar's bid and is now head of the 2022 Supreme Committee

The combination of billions of dollars and fierce determination can go a long way.

"There is a significant amount of work that needs doing," concedes Al-Thawadi.

"Tenders are already out for the first tunnelling phase but I look at it like a 400-metre race.

"Can you go flat out early?

"No.

"Can you build up to it slowly?

"No.

"It's a fine balancing act and the next 10 years are exactly like that.

"We are putting into place a decision-making process, up and down the chain, that is quick and efficient."

The issues of heat, size and a winter World Cup were all covered in the first part of my interview with Al-Thawadi.

But what, I asked him, was Qatar going to do about its human rights record regarding migrant workers, which is constantly questioned in the media and seems to be at odds with the nation-building vision.

"This gets raised all the time and for me it's kind of strange because we have always said we are making a commitment towards the human and social elements which are very important," he responds.

"In all constructions contracts there will be requirements that meet international standards."

Al-Thawadi is fiercely proud of the legacy element that Qatar has promised.

Last week's Doha Goals conference, pulling together many of sports' leading decision makers and stakeholders, was a classic example of the passion being demonstrated to use sport as a tool for positive change, not just in Qatar but the entire region.

Aspire Dome 17121The Doha Goals forum took place at the Aspire Dome

Much has been made already of the jaw-dropping Aspire Dome, the state-of-the-art multisport venue that is used as both a training and coaching headquarters for aspiring young Qatari hopefuls and a conference centre to spread the message.

Al-Thawadi insists Qatar's relentless quest to be taken seriously as a sporting hub, with its proliferation of conferences and talk shops, would have happened regardless of whether they won the right to stage the World Cup.

Most punters had never heard of Qatar as a sporting destination prior to the bid but Al-Thawadi counters: "The World Cup might have been a catalyst but don't forget we have also bid for the Olympics and we've already hosted a string of major sporting events.

"Plus Aspire got built years before the World Cup came on board.

"To dispel the myth very clearly, sport is within our DNA."

And football in particular.

Al-Thawadi refutes the suggestion that Qatar does not deserve the World Cup because it has no footballing pedigree and has never qualified for the finals.

"Football wasn't born here overnight just because of 2022," he insisted.

"I don't buy the pedigree argument.

"Asia now has a strong standing in world football and it's not easy qualifying.

"Don't forget that in terms of club football Al-Sadd [Qatar's leading club] came from nowhere to win the AFC Champions League last year.

"That shows the pedigree is being built.

"Look how long it took Africa.

"We have only been in place since 1971 as a country."

Which is why the aspect of nation building is playing such a key role in 2022 planning, just as it did in South Africa in 2010.

"We are perhaps on a scale no-one has seen before because the concept is not limited to the borders of Qatar and is about the entire Middle East," says Al-Thawadi.

"We want the power of sport to break down stereotypical barriers."

While the ideology might be for a Middle Eastern World Cup, the reality is that Qatar has no intention of sharing the tournament with its neighbours.

UEFA President Michel Platini suggested as much during the summer, the idea being to allow other Gulf States to have a piece of the action.

But Al-Thawadi says this is not part of the grand plan and dismisses it outright.

qatar sport1Qatar has made it clear that it has no intention of sharing the tournament with its neighbours

"It's not something that was part of our bid," he explains.

"For me it's a Qatari World Cup."

Which makes him determined to succeed, regardless of the tunnel vision he believes some of his critics may have.

"When I look back - sleepless nights working on our final presentation and coming up with innovative concepts in our technical bid - I'm very proud of what we've done," Al-Thawadi says.

"After all, we were new to this whole industry; we didn't know anybody.

"When we won the bid on December 2, 2010, some of my closest non-Qatari friends rang me up in tears.

"Combining all the different cultures outweighs all the knocks we have taken.

"I have a pretty positive feeling that in time people will understand what we are trying to do too.

"We have a great concept and a great dream but the measure for me in terms of whether we are on the right path has always been commitment of the people and the operational staff who buy into the vision: people willing to work through thick and thin.

"That commitment is incredibly uplifting."

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