/ 5 February 2015

Qatar’s invisible hosts miss the fun

It takes all sports: The Lusail Multipurpose Hall in Doha
It takes all sports: The Lusail Multipurpose Hall in Doha

Deep into the second half, Zarko Markovic was enjoying another fine spell: first he beat Brazilian goalkeeper Cesar Almeida on a fast break and then he tricked Almeida from six meters out. The right back was a top scorer when hosts Qatar triumphed against Brazil 28-23 in the opening game of the 2015 Handball World Championships.

Until 2013, Markovic, born in the Yugoslavian village of Cetinje, played for Montenegro. He has not been the only one to switch his allegiance. Qatar’s handball team is a foreign legion: goalkeepers Goran Stojanovic and Danijel Saric have roots in the Balkans. Left-back Bertrand Roiné once played for France. Hassan Mabrouk, Borja Vidal and Rafael Capote come from Egypt, Spain and Cuba respectively.

But the foreign mercenaries ensured a crowd-pleasing victory to kickstart the tournament, the culmination of a sports-filled month for Qatar. The capital Doha hosted Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the Qatar Exxon Tennis Open and welcomed Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich at its famed Aspire Academy. Sergio García teed off at the local golf club. The motto of the handball world championships, “Live It, Win It”, was very much in evidence.

And that is precisely what Qatar are trying to do: to welcome foreign, sport-oriented guests and overcome Western scepticism about the emirate staging the Fifa World Cup in 2022.

Forsaken watseland
The facilities are impressive. Qatar played all their games in the group stages at the Lusail Multipurpose Hall, 25km north of downtown Doha. The tournament’s flagship venue with a capacity of 15 300 lies in a forsaken wasteland, but the hall’s checked glass coating represents Qatar’s nature: the sand, the pearl and the sea.

Sheikh bin Tamim Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, attended the opening ceremony, a colourful spectacle, with a large flag of nations, 23 musicians representing the participating nations, including Belarus’s Alexander Rybak and German singer Oceana, and fireworks.

Last weekend, France were crowned world champions for a record fifth time as they outclassed the hosts 25-22, but Doha’s expansionist vision in sports is set to continue. Next year the Qatari capital will host the world cycling championship on the road, and the same goes for athletics in 2019. The secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani recently said that Doha’s Olympic ambitions would materialise soon. “It is not a matter of Qatar wanting to bid for the Olympics or not,” said the sheikh. “But it is a time when Qatar has to decide when to go for it.”

So is Qatar aiming to become the sports epicentre of the world?

Nasser Al-Khater, the executive director of communications and marketing at the Qatar 2022 supreme committee, the body responsible for delivering the infrastructure for the World Cup, does not see it as such.

“Qatar is not trying to become the sports capital of the world,” he said. “The term has been used, but sports has always been part of Qatar’s strategy. Qatar hosted Santos and Pele in 1973, the Asian Cup in 1988 and the youth World Cup in 1995. For a young country, we have hosted a lot of sports events.”

United society
Mega-events and their accompanying delivery of key infrastructure are helping to galvanise Qatar and propel it well into the 21st century. Qatar will invest $125-billion in the next five years. Doha is Qatar’s beacon of steel and glass, overtaking other local hubs such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi in importance, thanks to its meteoritic rise because of the country’s hydrocarbon wealth. Ultimately, Vision 2030 is the goal: a united and educated Qatari society.

At present, there seems to be an identity vacuum in the tiny Gulf state. Expatriates and the omnipresent foreign workers from the subcontinent are the pillars of the society. They also populated the stands at the various sporting events in January. But interaction with the 300 000 native Qataris is almost nonexistent.

The vacuum is also palpable in Qatar’s sports culture. At the Qatar-Brazil game, 60 Spanish fans cheered, sang and danced with gusto to support Markovic and company. They played the saxophone, the trumpet and the drum. They waved the Qatari flag. They repeated their performance with bravura at every Qatar game, even when the hosts played Spain.

But the local organising committee had seduced the fans with an all-expenses paid trip for the duration of the tournament.

Vision 2030 would do well to eradicate such nonsensical scenes and foster genuine sports-loving Qatari fans.