Friday, January 7, 2011

It could only be Qatar it will only be Doha

Dr. Joel Rookwood

I was driving through the Welsh countryside when the news broke detailing the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. Millions waited in nervous anticipation, as years of planning, investing and campaigning culminated in a single word on a piece of paper.

Before the FIFA president announced who would be staging the former event however, he offered confirmation that the word 'England' would not appear from inside the envelope. In what was a strange pre-announcement speech (even for Mr Blatter) he referred to England as the 'homeland' of football. I did not require video footage to interpret this rare show of placation, the clarity of which was in stark contrast to my car's radio reception. The World Cup was definitely not 'going home'.



The suitability as a venue and the strength of the English bid was never in question, yet ironically such pedigree would prove their undoing. Had it not been for 1966, England fans might be reflecting on 'eighty years of hurt', but the country would have also been in a stronger position to host the 2018 event. I was genuinely pleased to hear the decision to take the tournament to Russia for the first time – after all, would you rather go to Plymouth or St Petersburg?

Blatter reiterated the importance of 'growing the game', and taking it to new frontiers. Finding new hosts and spreading the competition across the continents seems a sensible way of doing this. Russia therefore appear to be the ideal candidate. Sprawling across Asia with a notable presence in Europe and one eye on the Americas, the Russian Federation is impossible to overlook.

What surprised me however was the lack of response to Qatar being named hosts of 2022. Save for the Australians, few would question the choice of continent, particularly given FIFA's expansive and rotational agenda – seven of the ten most populous countries in the world are in Asia - but as a nation of 1.6 million people, with a landmass half the size that of Wales, how exactly will the 148th biggest country in the world grow the game? Cynics may point out that in global terms, Moscow has more millionaires than any other city, and Qatar has the highest GDP per capita – yet we are led to believe these were not chiefly economic or political decisions, but 'sporting'.

In July 2007 when the Qataris were granted the opportunity to host the 2011 Asian Cup, eyebrows were raised in some quarters. Strangely there were no serious competitors that time either, after India and Iran pulled out of the running. When the event kicks off in Doha this evening, it would be an overstatement to claim that the eyes of the football world will be on the Qatari capital, principally as no one outside of this continent really cares about the Asia Cup. However, the tournament should provide some indication of what the first Middle Eastern World Cup might look like.

The AFC Asia Cup sprung to life in 1956, and its supporters will claim it has since transformed into a world-class sporting event. Seven of the twelve affiliated teams competed in the first tournament in Hong Kong, and now, more than fifty years later, the tournament has grown to showcase sixteen of the top teams from the continent. The 2011 event marks a second opportunity for Qatar to host the competition, and will include representatives from Australia, Bahrain, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, North Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria, UAE and Uzbekistan.

Current holders Iraq positioned themselves on the footballing map and propelled the tournament into global consciousness, when the war-torn nation overcame Saudi Arabia to win the 2007 final in Jakarta. The finalists were two of the only teams not to be involved in hosting the tournament, staged somewhat farcically in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.



As sole hosts, Qatar have promised to provide something quite different for 2011. The organisers claim that the 15th Asia Cup will be one defined by entertainment. When I landed in the capital last night, an airport advertisement for the national telecommunications company supporting the event claimed they are 'the sponsors of excitement'. As I write from the top floor of my Doha hotel, hours before the opening ceremony and encounter, two of the five stadiums set to host this centralised tournament are in view in the hazy distance. Sharpening the focus, for Qatar and for Doha, this is the time to deliver.

© Dr. Joel Rookwood & Soccerphile.com

Find the latest Asian Cup odds at Bet 365, which has LIVE STREAMING of the Asian Cup matches.

Japan are 7/2 favorites, followed by South Korea and Australia at 9/2, Saudi 15/2 and Iran 8/1.



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