January 12th, 2011
03:52 PM ET

An ominous sign ahead of the 2022 World Cup?

The much-anticipated clash between neighboring Iran and Iraq was played in a half-empty stadium.
The much-anticipated clash between neighboring Iran and Iraq was played in a half-empty stadium.

The Iran vs. Iraq game was billed as one of the highlights of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. Two giants of Asian football with passionate support and a shared past that has been bloody and violent.

In anticipation of a bumper crowd, street hawkers gathered outside the remote Al Rayyan stadium, 15 miles from the capital Doha, to sell maroon vuvuzelas (the color of the Qatari flag), scarves, flags and packets of sunflower seeds. But business was surprisingly slow.

The supporters from both sides - largely ex-pat Iraqis and Iranians living in Doha mixed with several who had flown in from as far as Shiraz, Tehran, Oslo and London - were loud and vociferous outside the ground, chanting their teams' names as they entered the stadium. But inside, a different picture was painted.

The match was seen as a clash of the heavyweights, not to mention bitter rivals, but you would not have known from the half-empty stadium. That this represented a relatively good turnout compared to the other matches tells its own story, and points to the big challenges – not insurmountable ones but challenges nonetheless – facing Qatar in 11 years' time.

This is the first opportunity to take a look at what an international football tournament in Qatar would look like after it won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. There have been a lot of positives. The stadiums, training pitches and facilities are all of a standard you would expect at the highest end of the sport. “World class,” in the words of Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi.

But almost all of the matches so far have been cursed by the same problem: poor attendances, with almost all but those matches featuring the home nation suffering. There aren't many international matches where North Korea provides a competitive proportion of the crowd – after all, it is virtually impossible for its citizens to leave the country – but that was the case at the sparsely-attended Group D clash with the United Arab Emirates, which ended goalless. Consider too that in 2022, the stadiums will be five times the size.

That the marquee Iran-Iraq game was half full was equally as surprising. The one game, other than Qatar’s opener, to be remotely packed so far was India’s clash with Australia, and that was only because a few Qatari construction and chemical firms had laid on buses for several thousand Indian workers, given them the afternoon off and paid for their tickets.

It could get worse if Qatar fail to progress.  If they don’t, then there is a real fear that the latter stages could be even more bereft of fans.

There are, of course, huge caveats. Qatar is a relatively new country - it has only existed since 1971 – and has a tiny population. Understandably, the football culture is much less developed. And Qatar is a long way from East Asia, meaning that the Japanese and South Korean fans, the most vociferous and well-traveled of the region's supporters, have probably been priced out by simple logistics. But it won’t stop the naysayers from bashing Qatar once again.

Qatar has the money to stage the World Cup, no doubt, but will it have the team and the fans to back it up? They have 11 years to prove the world wrong.

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. John Wallace

    PFFFFT!!!! BIG SUPRISE THERE.......

    January 12, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  2. Ryan Simonet

    I'm an American living and working in Qatar. I'm not going to lie: Qatar is awesome and WILL "prove the world wrong" in 2022 (as this article suggests). If I could sum up these games in one word, I would use the word "Organized." I see team busses with police escorts zipping through traffic. I was at the airport as the teams arrived, I see cops maintaining traffic before and after games, and I see visitors enjoying a safe vacation, as they stay in a country I proudly call home. If I wasn't so busy with work, I'd have attended one of these matches. In fact... All I've attended so far was a HUGE, free concert on the opening day. But the fact that I haven't attended a single game thus far, is strange. I suppose tomorrow I'll walk a block to the stadium next to my apartment (seeing a ticket is less than 5 U.S. dollars). That's just my perspective. I was actually looking forward to the Iraq/Iran match... I didn't realize I missed it. Blah blah blah, that's just me and my 2 cents.

    January 12, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  3. Martin

    Personally I think the decision to have the '22 WC in Quatar was horrible and a result of a completely corrupt FIFA committee.

    Still I think this article lacks perspective: The Asian Cup has rarely ever been a big draw. According to Wikipedia the average attendance for this tournament so far has been about 16,500. By comparison the last Asian Cup in 2007 drew an average of 22,000 fans. So the difference isn't going to be all that big. In fact if you compare it to the Asian Cup of 2000, the attendance is great. Back then the average attendance was less than 11,000. The only time in recent history that the Asian cup got more than 35,000 in average attendance was in 2004 when the cup was held in China.

    What does that mean for the World Cup in '22? I don't know, but I am fairly certain that the stadiums will be filled.

    January 12, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  4. Jargitay

    Funny, this article sounds like all the doubters out there who first said Qatar couldn't win the right to host the World Cup. Just pure negativity and cynicism. Part of Qatar's argument to FIFA was that the World Cup would help develop the sport in the Middle East and in their own country. They have 10 years to get it together. Given how fast and how impressively they have developed their country, I for one, wont count them out so prematurely.

    January 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  5. footballfan

    Iran used to be good in football but it has a poorly managed football league. Clubs are suffering. The league can not produce quality players. Iranian football structure is substandard and neglected. Unfortunatly Iran can not compete any longer agianst teams like Korea, Japan and even Australia since those countries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in new stadiums, clubs and even like Australia they have retooled their domestic leagues. Iranian football officials are poorly educated and trained for the task. It will take millions of Dollars and a generation to fix the football foundation in iran alone. That is a long way to come.

    January 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  6. Thomas

    This article is roughly 500 words long, and "Vociferous" was used twice – I'm glad you have an elevated vocabulary, but varied word choice is refreshing.

    January 12, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  7. samy

    I am not a supporter of Qatar. but this article looks ridiculously biased against Qatar winning the world cup bid. Yes..Qatar is very new. But thts how you can take football to all the parts of the world. If england won any of the bid, ofcourse it will attract more crowds and football is already popular in europe. It may fill the pockets of media borons and FIFA.But, it will fail to spread the game to the parts where football is not so popular. still qatar got 11 years. its more than a decade. You can expect a spectacular worldcup from qatar. I hope Qatar will deliver it...!

    January 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Reply
  8. Maria

    I think Qatar was the worst possible choice for a world cup venue: a small, new country with no population or soccer history or team pride, with discrimination is rampant (homosexuality is illegal there) and alcohol is prohibited. The Qatari people could care less about soccer and they are not happy about the prospect of millions Western tourists invading their country ofr a month to party and drink nonstop. IMHO, only $ and bribes paid to FIFA officials explains this choice of host country for 2020 world cup, which was not requested by the Qatari people as a whole or in agreement, but by Qatari businessmen exclusively.

    Worse, today in the news, Platini (UEFA president) announced that another co-host ocuntry should be chosen to co-host with Qatar. This is ridiculous, it shows FIFA is clueless and is itself convinced that Qatar is not up to the task to host this event by itself. Perhaps they came to their senses, but it would be unprecedented to add another co-host country for a world cup after the voting has been completed. FIFA has contemplated moving the tournament to the winter to avoid the summer heat, a choice that would also be inprecedented and would cause chaos for the world Club seasons who would have to interrupt their campaigns to accomodate for the World Cup in the middle of their seasons.

    IMHO, if they wanted a Middle Eastern country, I think more western-minded countries such as Jordan, United Arab Emirates (which is a popular destination already for Westerners) or Egypt would have been better choices. Since none of those countries presented a bid, the Portugal/Spain would have been the next best choice (USA has already hosted a World Cup). I, for one, am not planning to attend the Qatari World Cup. Rio de Janeiro, here I come!

    January 12, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  9. deepwater805

    For the life of me...yawn...I can't figure out why...

    January 13, 2011 at 1:35 am | Reply
  10. alehandro

    I guess this is what we can expect for the next 11 years, Qatar bashing at every given opportunity, with every move the 2022 host nation makes on and off the pitch getting scrutinized and critiqued by those with an agenda and an eye for the main chance. It's more than a decade before the Mid-East gets its first World Cup, how many of the previous hosts had everything in place this far in advance? FIFA gave the 2022 to a "DEVELOPING" soccer nation not a "DEVELOPED" soccer nation, so by definition Qatar needs time for its football culture to evolve, and it's GOT time. Besides, how can you possibly compare the Asian Cup to the World Cup? They're chalk and cheese, with one sure to attract far more interest from the locals and far more tourists to boost the attendance figures than the other. This is a snide and spiteful piece of journalism in which the writer is seeing what he wants to see.

    January 13, 2011 at 1:58 am | Reply
  11. porcini_blather

    What does it say about the WC?
    It's not about spreading the game, it's about Blather being reelected as President of FIFA. Porcini expects that when Blather retires, he'll be the next President of FIFA. That's why he always toes the FIFA party line – group hosts are bad, qatar will build air conditioned stadiums... but now he says there may need to be more than one host (perhaps Spain/Portugal?) and move it to the winter... oops, there goes all of UEFA's competitions.

    January 13, 2011 at 3:25 am | Reply
  12. gukchung

    I think that Qatar is supposed to host the WC successfully in 2022.
    They have time and money do deal with whatever problems.

    January 13, 2011 at 4:15 am | Reply
  13. Anthony

    We had Brazil play in UAE and the stadium wasn't even over a quarter full. Unless you have died hard fans (which in this region they don't), why bother going to watch at a stadium why you can see it on TV?

    An Abu Dhabi football team have been giving away 1,000,000 AED so people will come to watch the team play, as well as giving the tickets away for free. Last week the prize was a car.

    The FIFA Club Cup was just as bad. The majority of people (around 85%) who live in UAE are expats from India, Pakistan, Nepal, UK, USA also the Philippines and most of them are cricket fans.

    With the Qatari WC they will be building the new stadiums but after the event I can't see them being used for anything, but the amount of money they have in that country it won't bother the powers that be.

    It's all about one up manship, Abu Dhabi got the Premier League, Qatar the World Cup. No doubt UAE will now try and get the Olympics!!

    January 13, 2011 at 4:58 am | Reply
  14. a little prespective..

    you get the impression after reading this article that the utter failure of WC 2022 is a foregone conclusion!

    funny how the 'reporter' conveniently omitted mentioning the sold-out venue (50,000+ fans) for the Aregentina vs Brazil friendly that was held only last fall.. or more recently, the near full stadium for Qatar vs China game last night!

    dear reporter: misinformation is one thing, disinformation is a completely different thing

    January 13, 2011 at 5:42 am | Reply
  15. kim

    good

    January 13, 2011 at 6:14 am | Reply
  16. MN

    Maria,
    I could not agree more than you (only that it will be in 2022).
    I do live here in Qtar and you touched the main points.
    The WC culture is not compatible with the local culture, either one will suffer and FIFA doesnt care? ($$$$$$$$)

    January 13, 2011 at 6:56 am | Reply
  17. Sanjay (I am not a Qatari ! )

    I think lot of Europeans are biased against the world cup being held in Qatar.
    Fact 1 – In 11 years time there will be lots of people flying from India and China and other bigger countries for the WorldCup. While I wont go and see a N.Korea-Uzbek match in the asian cup,I would for a rare opportunity see a Czech-Paraguay match in the worldcup. It's the occasion!
    Fact 2 – It's only a 2-3 hr flight from India to the Middle East so get tickets ,fly one day ......see match.......shop........stay a night ........fly back and in 11 years time there will be enough of people willing to do so.
    Fact 3 – Lots of Asians are used to the heat........we might prefer it then driving in icy conditions to see Chelsea play Sunderland !! As long as the stadia are cool and the players are comfortable we will have a good match
    Fact 4- I would prefer putting my beer can aside to watch the action for a day.It's preferable to being mugged by a few drunken louts in a European town centre
    Fact 5- If they have the WCup in Dec, it would be great. Why should the world care if a European national leagues calendar is disrupted. Many other national leagues are disrupted by a summer wcup every 4 years. If it is about the league losing money........well let their product speak that year.
    Fact 6-Most of the money from the cup comes from ads......not seats. The atmosphere for the cup comes from having full stadia. There are 64 matches. Maximum seats to be sold appx 3 million. There are 50 million arabs who can afford to travel and buy tickets and who would feel comfortable in the environment. There will be atleast another 100 million South Asians........so the stadium willbe filled.
    Fact 7- The biggest gathering in that year will not be the World Cup.......yes it will be the Holy Hajj in Mecca.If Saudi Arabia has managed this yearly.......Qatar can afford to do this for once 11 years from now.
    Fact 8- If a person is a really keen fan for his team..........he will travel and learn to put up with the different culture. If not who cares......the stadium can be filled with someone else.
    Fact 9- Even though I am Indian,I will not watch India play Australia in the Asian Cup........but I will try to get tickets for Czech-Paraguay match in the WCup and enjoy it as a spectacle. If I am sitting next to a Czech I will support his team ! There are millions of us who watch football as neutral supporters and get swayed to support a team by circumstances........for example – good players/ tactics.
    Fact 10 – Out of all this maybe my kids will be more passionate for football. Remember even the Brazilians only heard about it in 100 years ago......so in another 100 years one would look at this decision of hosting the cup in Qatar as a wise one. Most revolutionary ideas are considered stupid by the majority of ignorant people..........If Christopher Columbus lived now.........America would not be discovered.

    January 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  18. Mark

    This is a very racist article written because football is being held in an arab prodominatly muslim nation.
    Everyone is entitled to his opinion and freedom of speech but there is a thin line between opinion and racism this article clearley crossed that thin line.

    January 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  19. Maria

    See, even a Qatari person agrees with me, thank you "MN."

    Why has there been no worldwide cricket tournament been held in USA or in Latin America? There is no cricket fan base there and the sport is not widely practiced in those regions. If the Cricket Federation were to bestow upon Colombia or Venezuela the 2022 World Cricket Cup, and if we used the logic some people on this blog have used, then we would argue that those Latinamerican countries have 11 years to develop the sport in their nation and grow to love cricket so they would be adequate hosts.

    The truth is that you cannot force someone to love something, you cannot expect Colombians to develop a love for cricket when soccer is the national pasttime, you cannot force a man to love a woman when he is in love with another. Qatari people cannot be forced to digest soccer when they never have done so and have not collectively expressed a desire to do so ever.

    I read somewhere that when Qatari people were initially disgruntled about having been awarded the 2022 Soccer World Cup and having to tolerate millions of drinking/hetero- and homosexual Westerners for a month in their nation, the authorities suggested that they travel out the country during that period of time to avoid the crowds. What does that say about the Qatari authorities? They care more about the financial gains of hosting the World Cup than the well-being and interests of their Qatari citizens.

    I would be surprised if the 2022 world cup games sell out.

    January 13, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Reply
  20. Juan

    Maybe world cup in russia will attract even less people because of extreme racism there.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:23 am | Reply
  21. kasonde

    QATAR world cup will be problem for FIFA if

    1) if Fifa thinks it can change the world cup to winter it will face stiff competition from the Winter Olympics, in fact the chairman of the IOC has warned Fifa if it dares to compete with them

    2) A winter world cup world cup could cause club vs country row and clubs would win. the clubs pay the players and if clubs want the would ban the players.. I hope Fifa goes ahead it would lead to its demise.

    3) most of the world best players play in Europe if a winter world cup is held it would mean most of these player would not be there

    4) Fifa actions may lead to another governing body remember that the people with the money are in Europe and usa they started it and they can end it.

    5) QATER has to build those machines and have summer world cup or else someone else should host it, many counties spent money advertising for the world cup

    January 14, 2011 at 10:56 am | Reply
  22. Steve

    Martin, you used wikipedia as a source – How does it feel knowing youre retarded and dont know much about anything?

    January 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  23. NAD

    Sep(Tic) Bladder is a disgrace not only to football worldwide but also himself.

    January 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  24. Amr

    a good world cup host is about organization, safety, and entertainment, not about the host countryhaving a good team or the biggest fans.

    as for the attendence, this is not unusual for the asian cup,and you can't use that as a world cup attendence predictor 11 years from now.

    Qatar is doing a good job hosting this asian cup as they did before in hosting different international sporting events. They deserve the chance to host the world cup and they will proove themselves as they did before in the world stage.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Reply
  25. Amr

    @maria

    please stop writing, everything you are saying is completely & utterly wrong.

    Arabs in general love football and are big fansof the sport.

    what is this nonesensce about cricket and a man loving a woman....bla bla bla

    January 14, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  26. Ethan

    The decision to award the WC to Qatar was a travesty sowed by the corruption of FIFA. Why even have a bidding process if FIFA is just going to choose the one that lines their pockets the most? Having the WC there is not good for Qatar, not good for the fans and not good for the sport. As others have said, most Qataris don't want the WC and all the Western infidels there. It's a nightmare destination for fans; I know I won't be going this time to a country where I can't even buy a beer. There is no love for the sport in Qatar and you can't make people love something simply by having a tournament there. Now they are talking about a possible co-host? This decision was a total farce. Everyone loses except for the corrupt Blatter cronies.

    January 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  27. Curmudhonky

    Cant we hurry up and invent cold fusion so the world can stop pandering to the petrodictators in arabia? Then the qrabs can go back tofighting their tribal wars among themselves and not bother the rest ofus.

    January 16, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  28. ali

    I went to one of those games, it took me two hours to cover 15KM to get to the stadium, now hear this, and this is not bad joke, I managed to get to the stadium with my pregnant wife just 5 minutes before kick off, I could see the gates but the organizers told us to go to the left and not to the right were I could see the one and only opened entry gate, basically this mean that my wife and me and around a couple of thousand other fans had to walk for 45 minutes around the whole stadium area to get to the gate from the other side, the organizers did this to not get flooded with fans, open more gates, pregnant,old and infants were all walking that route, we got to the stadium after halftime and could not get our seats we were simply shoved by the organizers to a corner in the curve.
    I had bought 4 tickets for 3 different games, I.e. 12 games I used only 3 tickets and the rest are in a drawer somewhere.
    During the path we walked there were no toilets, no ambulances, no water no nothing just a walk around the stadium and its facilities in the desert.
    I tried to complain to the organizing comitee but they said that this is not the place to complain, when asked where to complain they said they do not know.

    January 17, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  29. MN

    Published in tthe Qatari Media:

    "Qatar on defensive over empty stadiums.
    "2022 World Cup hosts Qatar were forced yesterday to explain the rows of empty seats at many Asian Cup matches after barely 3,500 people watched a crunch group game.
    Tournament organisers also addressed concerns as to why the apparently sell-out must-win final group game between the hosts and Kuwait at the 40,000 capacity Khalifa Stadium on Sunday saw many seats unoccupied.
    (...)
    “We try our best to attract people to come here,” said tournament director Tokuaki Suzuki, adding it was particularly hard to draw large crowds to stadiums when there are two games going on at the same time.
    “There are not so many people who came to Qatar from China,” he said. “We are trying our best to attract fans to the stadiums.”
    Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi has been among those who has pleaded with local people to fill stadiums at the Asian Cup, warning: “The world is watching.”
    But his call has gone largely unheeded, with stadiums usually about half-full.
    (...)
    http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=410541&version=1&template_id=49&parent_id=29

    January 18, 2011 at 8:43 am | Reply
  30. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Qatar has time enough to show to the world its true capacity to organize the mega event. The year 2022 is far away. 22 years from now ! We are almost a generation away. It is pointless to appear like prophets or champions of doom. They may even do better than South Africa, Brazil and Russia. Good luck to the Qataris.

    January 21, 2011 at 9:19 am | Reply
  31. ray

    So Sepp Blatter in his interview with cnn says the technical side of the bids is not why world cups are given.Tell me then,why do they then look at the technical side at all before they decide? Isnt this then just a complete waste of time? He also said that there was only 2 or 3 corrupt people in fifa out of 300 million.The only problem is that those 2 or 3 people are part of the 24 people on the fifa executive committee that decide who gets the world cup and there could be more corrupt of those 24 that we dont know about.Thats pretty bad odds if you ask me.He then said that theres over a 50% chance that the world cup in Qatar will be in winter but now i see fifa have changed their mind completely about that saying the host country have to suggest that idea of a winter world cup before fifa can examine that idea.Its obvious they saw the reaction to that stupid idea and changed their minds.Blatter said it was unfair for everyone that its played in summer.Is he for real? Didnt he know how hot it was in Qatar in summer? Its unfair they gave the world cup to Qatar.Now Platini says he wants Qatar to share the world cup with its neighbours.so really,Platini is conceding that Qatar is just too small a country to host the world cup.You can tell by the answers blatter gives that hes corrupt.As you can see,Qatar getting the world cup was the wrong decision and there is no way fifa can defend that decision

    January 22, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  32. Brian

    As for the notion that Asians are used to the heat... East Asian teams have traditionally suffered in the sweltering conditions when playing in West Asia. The final rounds of the World Cup qualifiers used to be played as a mini-tournament in a single location; when Qatar hosted these for the 1994 World Cup, Japan missed qualification and South Korea barely qualified. Now it has switched to a home-and-away format to eliminate the regional bias.

    Asia is geographically such a huge continent with diverse climates. Playing in humid conditions in Southeast Asia or in freezing conditions in a Northeast Asia again present different challenges for different Asian sides. Witness Australia's struggles in the 2007 edition held in Southeast Asia.

    European fans travelling to South Africa for the World Cup had less distance to cover than Australians travelling to Qatar. England is far closer to Qatar, in fact, than South Korea, Japan, or Australia. The distances involved go a long way in explaining why the Asian Cup has not been a big draw; this is not like the European Championships where huge numbers of fans can simply hop on a train or a low-cost airline ride or just drive to the host cities themselves.

    January 22, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  33. Gordon

    Football is an awesome game. It can bring rivals toggether just like it has brought Iran and Iraq in this game. Now if these two countries were to work together as friends politically, the Middle East would be enjoying much peace than it is right now.

    Four (4) world cups from the next one, Southern Sudan maybe aspiring to host the world cup too. The finalists will be North Sudan Vs South Sudan and the winner will be S.Sudan. S.Sudan oyee!!!

    January 30, 2011 at 5:08 am | Reply
  34. Oliver Chettle

    What is impressive about sucking up a lot of oil and gas (using Western expertise), selling it into the global industrialised economy (created by the West), and using the resulting vast income per capita to build a lot of stuff (using Western expertise and cheap South Asian labour)?

    February 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  35. Oliver Chettle

    If the World Cup moves to the winter, the Winter Olympics will get squashed, that's why the IOC is worried. FIFA doesn't have any reason to fear competition from the Winter Olympics.

    February 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply

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