So what has Qatar in common with South Africa? On the face of it you would think this is an absurd, Christmas quiz, question. But it is not.
In footballing terms they have a lot in common. The common factor is both countries are pioneers for the world’s most popular game, staging the World Cup in their part of the world for the first time. And both countries have had the need to convince the world they are worthy of having this honour.
However there is one crucial difference. When South Africa started on their quest to bring the World Cup to Africa for the first time the whole world, apart from rivals such as Germany, England, Morocco, Libya, wanted them to stage the competition. And there were many in Germany and England, not connected with the bids, who felt South Africa should have got the 2006 World Cup. That you may recall went to Germany, almost by default.
South Africa had what may be called the huge plus-Mandela factor in its support. The world feeling guilty for the way it had tolerated, even acquiesced, in apartheid for decades was keen to make up to Mandela’s rainbow nation. Qatar, in contrast, were not only surprise winners but have struggled with what may be called a huge minus factor of both being an Arab country and an oil-rich one. Questions about how Qatar won the world cup, despite all the protestations by the Qataris that they won it fair and square, continue to be raised. This makes its task of being a host that the world will welcome all the harder.
All this was vividly brought home to me when I visited Qatar last week for the Doha Goals programme. Nothing could have better illustrated how keen this desert country is to impress the world that it takes not just football but sport seriously. So we had almost everyone that matters in world sport starting with Sepp Blatter through to Seb Coe and any number of Olympic and other great sporting winners such as Francois Pienaar and Carl Lewis.
A desert may not be the place to see swimmers but there was Ian Thorpe, the Australian hero of the Sydney Games seeing this as a stepping stone for his personal quest to carry on until the Rio Olympics. And one of the images in the main conference hall was that iconic one of Mandela handling the 1995 Rugby World Cup to Pienaar, an image that truly tells a thousand stories of nation building through sport.
It was quite an experience sitting in the Aspire Dome watching the start of the Doha Goals Program. The Dome itself must be one of the most unique buildings of its type. This is no ordinary conference venue. This is an indoor sports complex complete with a full size football pitch, Olympic-sized swimming pool, diving pool and an indoor athletics track. At one stage during the conference trying to find the auditorium where a press conference was being held I saw a sign for the track. Just in front of me was Jonathan Edwards and for a moment I thought he was about to perform when I realised he was one of the many glittering stars from sport who formed part of the Doha Goals programme.
And the main hall where the opening ceremony, and many other events took place, was like no other conference hall I have ever been to. For a
start the seating showed a fascinating class distinction. Facing the podium were comfortable sofa style seats, followed by the more common seats you find in conference halls and then at the back the sort of tiered seats in an indoor sports area. Not knowing where to sit I headed for them only to be told this was for the more than 250 students from all over the globe who had been invited to the conference. As a media person I had a more comfortable seat but not the sofa style seats earmarked for the great and good.
Here was seated the Emir of Qatar and his entourage, President Ali Bongo of Gabon, former President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, Seb Coe, Hugh Robertson, the British sports minister and various other sports dignitaries. To complete this picture of Qatar gathering together the good and great we also had Peter Mandelson there. But while Mandelson did not speak, he just sat and smiled, the rest of the good and great told us their views of sport. So the Emir of Qatar talked about the importance of sport; the President Bongo explained why some sportsmen are even more important than politicians in his country; Sarkozy revealed why he wanted 2022 to be held in Qatar and Blatter that sport is all about hope.
Qatar’s hope is that such conferences, this was the second such conference I have attended in Doha this year, will show that Qatar is not only making history by being the first Muslim country to host the world’s most popular sporting event but that it understands modern sport. Qatar knows that modern sport is a western, largely British and French, creation. And Qatar wants the world to understand that it can not only cope with this western invention but that it can set the sporting agenda in the decade ahead.
However the problem for Qatar is the strong impression being formed that the Qataris are not happy to get the World Cup they also want to
change the international sports calendar. So Michel Platini has spoken of a winter World Cup in 2022 and at the conference Sarkozy repeated word for word what Platini has been saying. Platini may deny that he was told by Sarkozy to vote for Qatar but listening to Sarkozy I got the impression that Platini has been reading from a script that the former French President drafted. Sarkozy for good measure also wants to change the summer dates for the Olympics.
To be fair to the Qataris they have said nothing about a date change. However the longer this controversy carries on the stronger the impression will be created that not happy with staging the world cup they want to take it over. That impression will not help Qatar gain credibility in the west, certainly not in the western media.
And this is where its lack of the plus-Mandela factor makes a difference. It now a cliché to say South Africa staged a fine World Cup. Yes, the World Cup mocked those who thought there would be chaos and confusion. However because of the plus-Mandela factor many of the problems of the World Cup were ignored or glossed over.
I am not talking of the pedestrian football, arguably the worst since Italia 90. That was hardly the South African organisers fault. But there were, as I recorded at that time, organisational problems. For instance the accreditation process was more elaborate than previous such events and nothing like as smooth as in London 2012. In South Africa you often had to go through irritating bureaucratic trap doors that were time consuming. And as I was getting my all important World Cup badge I was told that when a certain Pele arrived for his he was asked which country he came from. When the greatest footballer cannot be immediately identified as a Brazilian you realise jobs had been given to many people who were indeed very new to the game. All very good you may say in bringing World Cup benefits to people who had been so cruelly denied for so long but still very odd.
My most mystifying experience was the many laptop checks when I went to meet officials at public buildings and venues. I had to take out my laptop much as you are required to do airports. But even more than at airports I had to stand and wait while an official noted down the serial number of the laptop in a book. When I left the process was repeated with the official checking the laptop serial number against the entry made in the book. Initially I thought this was to do with security concerns but it turned out to be a crime prevention measure stopping people walking away with laptops. In media centres this led to laptops being screwed to the tables, like old days in Fleet Street when typewriters were similarly secured.
Now in the overall scheme of things such glitches do not matter. But recall that Atlanta in 1996 got its bad reputation in the media from just such problems and it never recovered. However, so keen were we all to celebrate this much longed for dream of Mandela’s rainbow nation, that few of
us dwelled on them.
Qatar will not have any such media bonus. That is why it needs to make sure its World Cup message is clear. And this message will get lost if the controversy about a winter world cup in 2022 goes on. The Qataris may not have started it. But their friends and backers have. They need to tell
us whether their friends are a proxy for them. If they are not then they should ask their friends to keep quiet so they can refine and focus on their 2022 message. Otherwise they will find for all the money they spend, and the conferences they hold, their message will be lost. They will not experience the glow South Africa did. And that would be a pity.
Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99
Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose