“Expect amazing,” exhorted Qatar’s 2010 campaign to host the World Cup. Half the human race, 3.2 billion people, watched the last World Cup on television. Now that Qatar has won its bid to host the championship in 2022, their scrutiny will be a welcome opportunity to define and grow the diminutive Gulf nation’s international image.
Not a traditionally sport-oriented place, Qatar has already embraced the beautiful game by buying or sponsoring foreign clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, building local football associations, and creating new Gulf-styled football broadcasts with commentators seated on floor-level cushions next to baskets of fruit. But some investments will take longer to mature: Qatar still has to fashion its national team, currently ranked 95th in the world, into a less embarrassing ambassador on the pitch.
With eight years to go, any shot Qatar’s national team has at “amazing,” or at least “decent,” depends on the feet of today’s prepubescents. Aspire Academy, a sprawling, government-funded sports training facility, regularly screens the nation’s 11-year-olds for football potential. But with an indigenous population of only 300,000, the talent pool is limited, so Aspire also relies on imports: the academy’s “Football Dreams” program has tested more than 2 million child athletes from the developing world – Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia – for recruitment, and invites 20 to Doha or to Aspire’s satellite school in Senegal every year. The government denies that it plans to naturalize them, but has in the past saved face in sports arenas by issuing Arabic names and Qatari passports to a Kenyan runner and a squad of Bulgarian weightlifters.
Less-prized migrants prepare the pitch for them: an army of poorly paid and treated Nepalese, Indian and Bangladeshi laborers are currently building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums in a national infrastructure overhaul worth US$140 billion. And even though the tournament is years away, the world’s attention has already been drawn to Qatar with more dread than expectation. At least 1,200 foreign laborers have died due to overwork or unsafe conditions on World Cup projects, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. It predicts 2,800 more will die before the first ball is kicked.