By day, Juma Marzouq approves Qatar’s masterplans for the vast stadium infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. By night, Marzouq goes into fan mode, tackling the challenge of filling soccer arenas in this tiny nation. Marzouq has seen encouraging signs since Qatar’s breakthrough on the field in February when it won the Asian Cup for its first major soccer title. The urban planning expert last week glanced around the near-full stands of Al Sadd’s 15,000-seat stadium for the visit of Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal in the semifinals of the Asian Champions League, a small victory for the hosts. “We have a new generation coming to the stadiums,” Marzouq said.
It isn’t always like this at soccer — or any other sport in Qatar — despite the ruling family’s thirst for bidding for elite events. Almost 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) from Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, far less boisterous scenes played out at Khalifa Stadium for most of the 10 days of the world track and field championships that ended Sunday. Organizers were left trying to explain away the thousands of empty seats.
“In every event there are lessons learned,” said Dahlan Al Hamad, vice president of the local organizing committee. “You cannot build the fan in one day, you have to engage them in the sport, they have to know the system of the sport, they have to have their athletes and know about their lives. “We are really increasing the number of fans,” he said. “If you could just compare today compared to 10 years ago you know, the fans here in Doha, it would be totally different than here.”
Just like FIFA’s contentious decision to grant the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, this was the first time the showpiece event on the track calendar had been awarded to the Middle East. The sparsely attended competition reignited concerns about Qatar’s ability to fill the eight stadiums that have been built from scratch or completely renovated to meet FIFA’s standards. “People love (soccer) here,” said Al Sadd coach Xavi Hernandez, a World Cup-winning midfielder with Spain in 2010. “They are crazy for (soccer).” Xavi is helping to promote Qatar’s soccer credentials to a world skeptical of the choice of location for sport’s premier quadrennial event. He also does damage control — the World Cup bidding process and the conditions for migrant workers building the event’s infrastructure are two hot-button topics.
FIFA is counting on rabid fans to travel no matter where the world’s most popular sporting event is held because this World Cup faces challenges others haven’t. The oppressive summer heat forced FIFA to move the World Cup from its June-July slot to a November-December schedule that cuts into the club season in Europe and changes the habits of fans who are resistant to change. Those who make the trip will need to be open-minded, and patient, especially in the traffic on the Doha roads.
Finding a beer won’t be easy. Many hotels are dry and only one shop in the country sells booze to locally-based foreigners with employer approval. Unlike in Russia or Brazil — the past two hosts — there is not a vast variety of tourist attractions, beyond the national museum that is still being completed, the souk and trips into the desert. With all stadiums within an hour of Doha, the skyscraper and mall-filled capital will be the hub. Fans will not be able to do easily is hop across on a plane to the sprawling tourist resorts of Dubai, unless the United Arab Emirates and its regional allies restore diplomatic, economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed in 2017 over allegations denied by Doha that it supports extremism.