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Qatar: From obscure desert kingdom to World Cup host

By James Montague for CNN
Argentina star Diego Maradona in Qatar during a visit to the country in 2005.
Argentina star Diego Maradona in Qatar during a visit to the country in 2005.
  • Qatar wins the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals
  • The Middle Eastern country beat bids from U.S., Australia, among others
  • The bid team has spoken of the World Cup helping to bring peace to the region
  • But how can the Qataris combat the intense summer heat?

James Montague is a Middle Eastern football expert and author of When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, a book about football and politics in the region.

London, England (CNN) -- It was a sight that many people thought they would never see in their lifetime: Brazilian legend Pele striding on to a stage and shaking hands with his Argentine nemesis Maradona.

The two, considered the best footballers the game has ever produced, had been sworn enemies for years, bickering over who really deserved to be regarded as the greatest player of all time. No one thought they would ever see the two in the same room, let alone embracing on a stage in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a gas-rich state on the Arabian Peninsula.

All previous attempts at a rapprochement had failed. Until Qatar got involved. A mixture of chutzpah, not to mention unlimited funds -- both were rumored in local media to have been paid six-figure sums to turn up in honor of a newly built sports academy -- had secured the unlikeliest reunion in football. In other words, Qatar had made the seemingly impossible, possible.

It is this attitude, of believing that anything is possible as long you have the will and the money, that has been at the heart of Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

When it was announced that Qatar wanted to host the 2022 World Cup, it was initially seen as a hopeless task. After all, the World Cup finals would take place in the middle of Qatar's sweltering summer, when temperatures easily exceed 50 degrees Celsius.

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Its tiny population, too, seemed to count against it. No one was surprised when FIFA's technical reports graded the Qatar bid as "high risk". The hurdles appeared insurmountable.

So how could such a small country -- which has only existed since 1971 -- overcome such illustrious rivals against all the odds? The answer is that Qatar has been working towards this for over a decade, investing billions of dollars into sport in order to put its flag in the sand and its name on the map.

Ever since the country's leader, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, came to power in 1995 by instigating a bloodless palace coup against his father, Qatar has gone from being a relatively modest absolute monarchy to being one of the richest states in the world.

It has a developing democracy, boasts universal suffrage and is home to the Al Jazeera TV network. The discovery of one of the world's largest natural gas fields in its waters transformed Qatar's ambitions over night.

Like its glitzy neighbors Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two emirates that make up part of the UAE, billions were invested in taking a short cut to development. But, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Qatar realized that investment in sport, and especially football, was the most effective way of marketing the country outside the region.

When is the right time to bring the World Cup to the Middle East? The time is now
--Sheikha Moza bint Nasser
  • FIFA World Cup
  • Qatar
  • FIFA
  • Russia

The Qatar Golf Course was built and today the Qatar Masters is part of the PGA European Tour. The Qatar Open and WTA Championships are now two of the biggest events on the tennis calendar. But it was football that had the true power to give Qatar a global platform.

The government funded state-of-the-art stadiums, including the 45,000 Khalifa Stadium which recently hosted an international match between Brazil and Argentina.

At the same time the Qatari Football Association began tempting some of the biggest names in the world game -- the likes of French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly, former Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta and current Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola -- to see out their final years in Qatar's domestic professional league, then called the Q-League but now rebranded as the Qatar Stars League.

"It's great fun, you feel safe in the country," explained former Dutch international Ronald de Boer, whose brother Frank also moved to Qatar and who was one of the ambassadors for the Qatar 2022 bid. "There's no pressure. The papers aren't on you every day. And anyway, it's in Arabic, so you can't read what they say!"

The aim was for the professionalism of these players to rub off on Qatar's homegrown stars so that the country's national team would eventually qualify for the World Cup finals.

It was one of the few things Qatar has been unsuccessful at. The team failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, slipping from 61st to 89th on FIFA's rankings. So a new plan was hatched. If Qatar couldn't go to the World Cup, then the World Cup would come to Qatar.

The country hosted its first major international tournament in 2006 with the Asian Games, and was emboldened to launch a bid for Doha to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. But the IOC didn't shortlist the Qatari capital over fears that the summer heat would be dangerous for the athletes, an objection that the Qataris were desperate to overcome with their ambitious plans to host the 2022 World Cup.

Central to their bid was a revolutionary cooling system that would use solar power to provide zero-carbon air conditioning to cool the stadiums, technology that has the potential to transform the lives of tens of millions living near the equator.

And it is the legacy that a Middle Eastern World Cup could bring that has arguably persuaded FIFA to take a risk on Qatar. After the tournament, Qatar has promised to dismantle the modular stadiums and rebuild them in third world countries who can't afford their own.

But there's an even bigger legacy that the Qatari bid have been pushing: Peace in the Middle East through football, quite a boast given that the country is close to both Iran, Iraq and borders Saudi Arabia.

"Just think what we can achieve together on behalf of our shared values," explained Qatar's glamorous first lady Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. "It sends out a message that after 92 years of waiting we are fully part of the global football family... When is the right time to bring the World Cup to the Middle East? The time is now."

All eyes will now turn to January's 2011 Asian Cup, Asia's equivalent of the European Championships, which is due to be hosted in Qatar and will be a good indicator to see how the country will cope hosting a major international football tournament.

But with publicity comes scrutiny. How can Qatar ensure stability in a region that is notoriously unstable? Currently Israeli citizens are banned from entering the country. Will Israeli fans and footballers be allowed to attend? And what of the poor conditions faced by foreign laborers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who will build Qatar's grand World Cup vision?

Qatar now has 12 years to prove the doubters wrong. No one should bet against them.

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