Qatar ploughs ahead with World Cup despite host of problems
DOHA - As one of the best World Cups ever ends in Russia, football's biggest tournament must now prepare for its most controversial, in Qatar in 2022.
Since the tournament was handed to the supremely wealthy Gulf state, whose team has never appeared in a World Cup, FIFA's decision has been roundly questioned and resulted in severe consequences for football and its governing body.
The four-year run-up to the Middle East's first ever World Cup is unlikely to prove any different.
With a host rocked by a diplomatic crisis, accused of supporting terrorism, facing allegations of corruption and human rights abuse, a tournament shifted to November and December for the first time and uncertainty over how many teams will take part in 2022, it is fair to say there has never been a World Cup like Qatar's.
Gulf crisis threat
The emirate sold its bid in part by claiming Qatar's World Cup would be one for the Middle East but that claim has been severely undermined by political events.
Since June 2017, a group of neighbouring countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have frozen relations with Qatar, accusing it of backing extremism and being too close to Iran.
The crisis has lasted 13 months and shows little sign of abating, instead deepening with Qatar taking the UAE to the International Court of Justice in June.
It has unsettled the most stable part of the Middle East and placed 2022 in its crosshairs.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have openly called for Qatar to be stripped of the World Cup and promised fresh revelations later this year.
As part of the crisis, Saudis and UAE citizens are prevented by their own countries from travelling to Qatar; prior to the dispute Doha tournament organisers predicted up to 1.5 million fans arriving for the tournament, many from football-mad Saudi.
FIFA has desperately tried to stay out of the bitter and bizarre conflict, but that appears unlikely to last.
On July 11 it announced it was preparing to take legal action in Saudi Arabia against pirate broadcasters, transmitting stolen live World Cup games from Qatar's beIN Sports.
And behind all the drama politics continue as FIFA president Gianni Infantino seeks to balance relations with Qatar and his increasingly warm links with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
List of issues
The myriad of issues surrounding Qatar 2022 are almost unfathomable.
Corruption investigations continue with the Swiss Attorney General's office examining the awarding of the 2022 tournament as well as an American court case hearing graft claims last year.
Qatar denies all allegations, as it does with terror-funding claim by its former allies.
The thorny issue of compensation for Europe's top leagues including Spain, England and Germany because they will suspend their leagues during a "Winter World Cup" remains unresolved, with a payout as high as one billion euros suggested in some quarters.
Despite mooted labour reforms affecting some two million migrant workers helping build World Cup venues and related projects, human rights groups remain anxious about the pace of reform promised by Qatar.
And the enthusiasm among some FIFA members, including apparently Infantino, for a 48-team World Cup in 2022 rumbles on.
Scheduled to be discussed at FIFA's Moscow Congress it was taken off the agenda, only for senior Qatari World Cup official Nasser Al-Khater to say in Russia on July 7 that a 48-team tournament was doable "if the format is done right".
As if all that is not enough, Qatar now has to follow one of the greatest World Cups, with expectations vastly raised ahead of 2022.
And beyond global issues, it will have to deal with more commonplace ones such as how much to limit alcohol sales during 2022.
Qatari organisers reportedly sent a team of some 30 officials to Russia and will have noted the large numbers of South American fans and the street party atmosphere in bars, something alien to Doha.
Qatar's World Cup preparations have so far been like none before it and the next four years promise to be no different.
Ahead of schedule
Last year, Qatar's finance minister Ali Sharif Al-Emadi said his country was determined to have everything ready for the 2022 World Cup well before fans started landing in the Gulf.
"We don't want to be painting while people arrive in the country," he said, before going on to reveal Qatar is spending almost $500 million (430 million euros) a week on infrastructure projects for football's biggest tournament.
It is highly unlikely that any visitor to the World Cup is going to see rushed last-minute preparations.
With four and a half years until the 2022 World Cup kicks off, Qatar is ahead of schedule when it comes to venues, related major projects and even paint.
Of the eight stadiums it will build or renovate for 2022, one -- Khalifa International -- is already open and will host the World Athletics Championships next year.
Two more, Al-Wakrah and Al-Bayt stadiums, are expected to be finished by the end of this year and officially opened early in 2019.
Work is also well underway on Lusail Stadium, where the World Cup final and opening game will be played in 2022.
Construction across Doha -- the 2022 World Cup is effectively a one city tournament and the longest distance between venues just 55 kilometres -- progresses despite the Gulf political crisis.
In the 13 months since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies froze all relations with Qatar, World Cup organisers have proved resilient.
The embargo, in place since June 5, 2017, cut off the supply of construction materials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but they were swiftly replaced by imports from Malaysia and China.
New roads, hotels, museums, neighbourhoods even towns -- including the estimated $45 billion Lusail -- have been built.
Doha's first metro system, costing $36 billion, is on track to open in 2019.
Qatar expects up to 1.5 million fans to attend in 2022 and they will be housed in a combination of hotels, Airbnb properties, tents and some 12,000 on cruise ships.
Doha has proved very sensitive about accusations there will not be enough hotel spaces with claims it will fall short on the 60,000 hotel rooms FIFA requires a World Cup host nation to provide.
Designated fan zones will be put in place as well as regulated areas where fans can drink.
Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, permits alcohol but only under regulated circumstances.
Where the teams will stay in Qatar -- and if all will stay in Qatar -- for the moment is not clear.
Iran has offered its Kish Island as a base for teams and use of that could depend on the tournament remaining a 32-nation World Cup or if FIFA brings forward plans to increase it to 48 sides.
For security, Qatar will use foreign police officers to try and combat hooliganism, say organisers, as they aim to deliver "the safest World Cup in the world".
British Typhoon fighter jets bought last year by Qatar for $8 billion will help provide security and patrol the skies during the event.