It seems that the ramifications of the FIFA vote in December 2010 to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar are still being felt across the football world. Whilst there was no denying it was a left field decision by the executive committee, it wasn’t as if the Middle East had never held a sporting event previously.
In the last 20 years, an incredible amount of money has been invested across the region to make both Dubai and Doha two of the rising stars of international sport. If we truly believe in the power of sport as a global force, then how can we continue to ignore the investment and facilities available to a wide variety of sporting associations? Formula One, The European Golf Tour and 20/20 Cricket have all been embraced by the Middle East, as the growing economic power of the region has seen them begin to challenge the established order of sport event hosting.
Formula One is perhaps the best example, with the current race calendar including Abu Dhabi and Bahrain which have complemented other races in Turkey, China, Singapore and South Korea. At the turn of the century, that would have been unthinkable to some, yet they have all added something different to the competition, perhaps even improved it.
The European Golf Tour, whilst hardly struggling, has sometimes struggled to keep a regular calendar of events in Europe due to loss of sponsorship and high profile players turning up every week. By trying to improve the quality of the fields and take on the power of the American PGA tour, the European Golf Association has had to think outside the box to offer an all year product.
By utilizing the warmer climates of South Africa, Asia and Australia, whilst now having the annual race to Dubai, The European Tour has an extra three months of golf to attract sponsors and top quality golfers which it simply couldn’t do by staying in Europe. To survive, the tournament has had to adapt and has been gratefully accepted in the Middle East. If anything, it needed the Middle East to survive.
Undoubtedly football’s popularity across the whole of the Middle East has consistently supplied teams to the World Cup throughout the last 40 years – it seems incredible that Iran’s debut in 1978 saw the first truly Middle Eastern country compete in the World Cup. Since that World Cup in Argentina, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the UAE have all qualified and the AFC has seen its participation grow from a playoff chance to four regular participants as the World Cup becomes a truly global competition.
We are now used to seeing Middle Eastern countries compete in every World Cup and the AFC has consistently given us some memorable performances. With Australia moving from the Oceanic qualifying arena to the AFC, the competition has been strengthened and the Middle East has become a regular host of the Asian Football Cup since Iran in 1968 – Qatar has held the event twice.
With competition continuing to grow, it is only fair that the Middle East becomes a big player in the World Cup and by utilizing these massive events; it can only be of a benefit to the area.
As the tournament is expected to grow to 40 teams, it is conceivable that we could be seeing six Asian and Middle East teams competing in Qatar in 2022.
By continuing to invest in sport, the whole region is benefitting from a higher profile. Coupled with the progress in football sponsorship across Europe, the Middle East has begun to shake the very foundations of what was the established order and that can only be a good thing for the sport. By awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the whole of the region will benefit for generations to come.