Sunday, December 4, 2022

Azu Ishiekwene:  In love, as in football, size does not matter. Here’s why 

The travails the world has gone through in the past few years are indicative that the choice of Qatar was probably right.

• November 17, 2022
Qatar 2022 trophy
Qatar 2022 trophy used to illustrate the story

It’s a great time to be a football lover. It might not feel exactly so if your country is not one of the 32 taking part in the 22nd edition of the World Cup in Doha, Qatar. But being a fan means managing to love the game without having your dog in the fight. 

For example, Nigeria’s national team, the Super Eagles, won’t be in Qatar – the second time in eight years. But since the team crashed out to Ghana in February, fans have managed to reconcile with their misery, especially with forthcoming elections which essentially foist a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. 

One month of jousting over which striker should have played in what position and who should have been benched is more useful for fans than listening to politicians promising heaven on earth without the remotest idea of how they plan to make it happen.

With national pride at stake for some, big money and career for a few, a chance to stake a political claim for others, and yet others with nothing but the ephemeral joy of the moment to lose, Doha is the world’s most valuable, and for the price of $220 billion, perhaps the most expensive one-month distraction. 

At times like these, for Africans, either at home or in the Diaspora, the trend is to gravitate their passion and support to the participating countries representing the continent. Senegal, Ghana, Morocco, Tunisia and Cameroon would carry the continent’s flag, after favourites, Egypt and Nigeria had failed to qualify.

In the history of the competition, only three African countries have made it to the quarter finals stage: Cameroon (Italia ’90), Senegal (Korea/Japan 2002), and Ghana (South Africa 2010), and only South Africa has been able to muster the resources to host the World Cup. 

No surprises, here though. Hosting the tournament has never been for the fainthearted. The 29-day tournament is costing the Kingdom of Qatar about 15 times the amount of Nigeria’s proposed 2023 budget and more than six times the proposed expenditure of N20.51 trillion.

Only deep pocket economies like Qatar and others like it can fund the huge infrastructural developments and building of eight stadiums. One of them, the 60,000 capacity Al Bayt Stadium, is modelled on the traditional Arabian tent with a retractable roof.

With the third highest human development index in the Arab world and the third highest gas reserves in the world, this tiny country of less than three million people is proving that some great things can be achieved not by size. 

And to think that its size is one the reasons former FIFA president Sepp Blatter feels Qatar doesn’t qualify as a World Cup host. 

But even if physical size is at issue, fiscal ability is the name of the game. And the young Arab sitting over this treasure trove has got more than enough cash to splash, host and entertain the rest of the world, represented by 32 national teams, many times over.

Born in 1980, Qatari king, Sheikh Tamim ibn Hamad Al Thani, has built a reputation of attracting high profile global sporting events to the Arabian Peninsula state even before he ascended the throne in 2013, as part of his strategies to raise Qatar’s international profile.

He also chaired the 2006 organising committee of the Asian Games. 
Due partly to his contributions, Qatar had also hosted the Asian Handball Championships in 2004, Asian Basketball Championships in 2005, and the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) World Cycling Championships in 2016. A bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics had failed as Doha lost out to Tokyo, Japan.

Coming after the world cup, are the 2024 Aquatic Championship in Doha and the Asian Games in 2030, also in Doha. 

The sheikhs are not only interested in developing a vibrant sports economy, their investments are spreading into the major football leagues of Europe as Qatar Sports Investments’ Nasser Al-Khelaifi owns Paris Saint Germain (PSG) – leading French club side and one of the richest clubs in football – with a net worth of $3.2billion, according to Forbes’ Soccer Team Valuations List. 

They reportedly own substantial shares in Portuguese and Belgian club sides as well. They also have substantial investments in what is arguably the world’s deadliest club side, Manchester City, and the latest sensation of the Premier League, New Castle.

Qatar 2022 is the first time the senior World Cup will be held in the Middle East since its inception. The Qatari Kingdom had to face up to giant neighbours Saudi Arabia, alongside UAE, Egypt and Bahrain imposing an economic blockade that cost the tiny Gulf nation $43 billion in losses, according to Al-Jazeera.

In June 2017, the four states cut all diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and destabilising the region – allegations Doha denied. Qatar ramped up local production and established diplomatic relations with Iran to not only overcome the challenges of the siege, but manage declining oil revenues.

In January 2021, Saudi Foreign Ministry announced that Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had resumed ties with Doha, during the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, a reconciliation mediated by Kuwait.

Blatter says Qatar 2022 was a “mistake”. Qatar was graded as having “high operational risk”, and generated much criticism as being part of the FIFA corruption scandals. Blatter’s “confessions” indicate that there was pressure from the French government under Nicholas Sarkozy and the connivance of former UEFA president, Michel Platini, to award hosting rights to Qatar. 

But the travails the world has gone through in the past few years are indicative that the choice of Qatar was probably right. Most rich Arab Gulf nations have been significantly insulated from the global economic shocks and the ravages of COVID-19.

The global economic depression and the COVID-19 pandemic had left even the financial powerhouses of Europe gasping for air, with the Russian-Ukraine war delivering yet another power punch on the world’s cereals and grains powerhouse. 

Rising food and energy costs which have caused domestic unrest in many countries would have made the high costs of hosting the World Cup at this time a very difficult task for the United States, which, according to the former FIFA boss, should have been the host of the 2022 tournament, after Russia hosted the 2018 edition. 

Football pundits and insiders have always alleged insider manipulations and boardroom politics in the running of the international football federation, and it appears Blatter is bent on confirming it.  

These considerations may well be behind the reasons Africa, with 54 member states in FIFA, gets only five qualification slots for the World Cup. 

Yet, going by Blatter’s words, Europe which is comparatively smaller than Asia, Africa, north and south America has 13 slots for Qatar 2022. 

Blatter may be talking about hosting rights and not participation in the world cup, but the goose and gander deserve a fair shot at one of the world’s most popular sports.

It doesn’t make sense that Europe with 55 members in FIFA, gets 13 slots, more than double that of Africa, which has only one number less in FIFA’s membership.

As the games begin on Sunday, about 200,000 fans will be travelling to match venues in Qatar, while an estimated five billion fans would be watching around the world, including fans in Russia and Ukraine separated by a totally needless war. 

Football is a tribal game. Though money and politics have often competed to spoil and corrupt it, just as they have sometimes proved indispensable in its improvement, when all is said and done, the kindred spirit of the true fans prevails. 

And that is the promise of Qatar.

Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP  

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