The twenty-second World Cup Finals will be unusual in many ways. Not only will Qatar become the first Arab nation to host the World Cup but also the first to have never qualified (with the exception of Uruguay who were the hosts in the inaugural tournament in 1930). With a population of just under 2.9 million they will become the smallest country to host the World Cup. Additionally, as the tournament starts on 21 November with the Final on 18 December it will be the first to take place in the northern hemisphere’s winter, necessitating a mid-season break for the major European leagues.
Such disruption to the football calendar could be justified if Qatar was a hotbed of football but looking at their record in qualification – see below – suggests otherwise.
1978 Finished bottom of group of three behind Kuwait and Bahrain
1982 Finished third in group behind Saudi Arabia and Iraq
1986 Finished second in group of three behind Iraq
1990 Finished third in second qualifying round behind South Korea and UAE
1994 Finished second behind North Korea
1998 Finished fourth in second qualifying round behind Saudi Arabia, Iran and China
2002 Finished fourth in second qualifying round behind China, UAE and Uzbekistan
2006 Finished third in group of four behind Iran and Jordan
2010 Finished fourth in second qualifying round behind Australia, Japan and Bahrain
2014 Finished fourth in second qualifying round behind Iran, South Korea and Uzbekistan
2018 Finished bottom of six in second qualifying round
There is no history of near misses or misfortune, just a long trail of failure as exemplified by their last qualification campaign for 2018 when they won just two of their ten matches in the final qualifying round. The closest they have come to making it to the Finals was in 1990 when they were third in the final qualifying round winning one of their five matches and one point behind UAE who qualified. Other than that, they have only succeeded in making Uzbekistan look like Brazil.
Aside from matters of football there are humanitarian concerns, most specifically the devastating human toll on construction workers who have been involved in the various infrastructure projects in preparation for the World Cup. As the Guardian pointed out in a 2021 investigation. “More than 6,500 from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. The findings, compiled from government sources, mean an average of 12 migrant workers from these five south Asian nations have died each week since the night in December 2010 when the streets of Doha were filled with ecstatic crowds celebrating Qatar’s victory.”
While not all of these deaths were directly linked to workers involved in World Cup construction projects, most people regard this overall figure as an under estimate, with many deaths of migrant workers from other countries not officially recorded. Alongside the issue of the maltreatment of workers during the construction of the stadiums and the allied infrastructure, the intolerance of the regime does not sit well. Any country where homosexuality is deemed illegal should not have the opportunity to take advantage of the global platform provided by being World Cup hosts.
So issues of moral and sporting integrity have been severely compromised however, FIFA are unlikely to be losing too much sleep over such matters. Some things do remain the same with the customary hoo-ha surrounding the launch of the official match ball, the Al Rihla. According to Adidas’ marketing blurb, their fourteenth consecutive World Cup ball, “is the quickest-ever ball that will feature in the competition, with the ball set to travel faster in flight than any other World Cup ball in history.” Whether this is a good thing is open to debate as tinkering with the manufacture of ball has led to problems in the past. In 2010 Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar was not impressed by the Jabulani. “The football is horrible,” Cesar said. “It seems like one of those you buy in the supermarket.”
On the eve of the World Cup draw being made on Friday afternoon, the reality that the most prestigious football tournament will be played in a country with no football heritage or pedigree and a repressive regime will finally sink in. The awarding of the tournament to Qatar seemed bizarre at the time, although it was masked by the fact that the 2018 hosts Russia were selected simultaneously, and the nearer the reality comes the stranger it appears. The draw taking place on April Fool’s Day seems poignantly apposite.
Ranked 52 by FIFA, Qatar will become the 80th country to appear in the World Cup Finals, having never qualified in eleven previous attempts. That leaves over 130 countries that have never qualified for the World Cup Finals looking enviously at the Qataris. One can only imagine what the Italians, who failed for the second successive time feel about the whole affair.
To add another layer of frustration, Qatar have been made one of the top seeds alongside Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, France and England, which means the host will avoid all those leading nations in their group matches. They have also been placed above Germany and Uruguay who have won the World Cup six times between them. This makes as much sense as Rochdale, who have only reached the 5th Round of the FA Cup once in their history back in 1989/90, being given a bye to the quarter-finals. Ludicrous, far-fetched and nonsensical. Welcome to Qatar 2022.