It isn't every day--or every century--that one of the smallest countries in the world (it's no bigger than Connecticut) with one of the smallest populations in the world (its 840,000 inhabitants make it less populous than San Jose or Detroit) can boast of defeating the most powerful nation on the planet. That's precisely what Qatar did on Thursday when bested the United States' bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Even tiny Uruguay, the World Cup's very first host in 1930, had a population of 1.7 million at the time, and Uruguay is considerably larger than Qatar. Switzerland hosted it in 1954 when its population was approaching 5 million. The Beautiful Game's 14 other hosts (three of them hosting it twice) have all been among the larger powers, at least soccer-wise: Germany, Italy, France, England, Brazil, Argentina, and of course the United States in 1994.
So Qatar's hosting will be a very major first on two counts: it'll be the first time that a Middle East nation hosts the world's most popular single-sport tournament. And it'll be the first time that a nation that small, that hot, and with such a slight and recent history in soccer, will be host.
Remarkably, Qatar has never been to a World Cup before. Unless it improves by leaps and miracles, the 2022 tournament may well be its first (the host nation automatically qualifies, as does the reigning champion). But it's not a soccer novice, either. Qatar won the Gulf Cup in 1992 and 2004 (the two years it hosted that tournament), and is a regular at the Asian Cup finals, which it is hosting in 2011.
It's difficult to overstate the small Gulf nation's achievement. And if any Arab nation had the credentials to host the World Cup tournament, it's Qatar, which in some regards is even more liberal than Lebanon among Arab states: Qatar (at least until Israel's 2008 assault on Gaza) was the only Arab nation to have trade relations with Israel. (Mauritania actually had diplomatic relations, which it also broke off after the assault.) That's not to say that Qatar isn't as prone to anti-Semitism as its neighbors. No Israeli team, soccer or otherwise, has been allowed into Qatar, and Qatar still doesn't recognize Israel (which, by itself, should have disqualified it from World Cup hosting contention), though the small emirate was very quick to announce that it would welcome the Israeli team should it qualify in 2022 (not at all an impossibility, given Israel's occasional flashes of soccer brilliance). To top off its promissory liberalism, Qatar also announced that alcohol would be allowed to flow much more freely during the tournament. Iran's mullahs across the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia's clerics, below the Qatari thumb on the Arab Peninsula, must be having one of those conniptions Linda Richman would be proud of.
Sure there was a little corruption and a lot of questionable calls on the way to the soccer federation's award of the games to Qatar. Why should FIFA's behavior off the field be any different than its officials on the field? The game is enormously political. There seemed to be a bit of a payback feel to these hosting awards, as if FIFA were telling the United States that for all its potential, its moment was passing. But aside from the usual games and underhanded maneuvers, there were more reasons to award the World Cup to Qatar than not.
Here are three: First, size isn't everything, especially in this age of global media and cheap travel. That a nation has a billion people or a million really doesn't make any difference anymore in terms of its capability to put on a show on a massive, global scale. We know Qatar can do so. One word: Al-Jazeera. That's not a nod merely to the global satellite network's ability to build a good TV set, but to the Qatari leader's ability to put his money where his ambitions are: The secret to Qatar's success and liberalization of late isn't al-Jazeera, but Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Middle East's leading reformer. No other Middle East nation's leader, or leadership, comes close to his broadening horizons.
Second, Qatar's plan for the World Cup is awe-inspiring. The architecture alone of the stadiums it plans to build should put to rest any doubt that between Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the world's most exciting architecture is rising out of those desert nation's fertile grounds. Al Shamal Stadium is to look like a seafaring ship. Al Rayyan Stadium will be rimmed by 420,000 square feet of giant screens. Al Khor Stadium will look like a wondrous seashell. Al Garafa Stadium will be a remaking of the old united colors of Benetton. Each stadium will be at once open-air and air conditioned (no energy conservation here). The whole bid was presented in a 40-pound book the Qataris put together.
Third, the Middle East has the fastest growing young population on the planet. By 2022, the region may well have a demographic problem of massive proportions on its hand--unless its tyrannical and despotic governments liberalize along the lines of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have figured out that it isn't enough to have oil, or money, or ambition: it's essential to have a plan to put people to work and encourage investment (the UAE hasn't yet figured out how to put its own people to work as much as it's been relying on borrowed, and often slave-like, labor from South Asia). By awarding the tournament to Qatar, FIFA is essentially targeting its next-most lucrative market after China, with one difference: the Chinese are not nearly as soccer crazy as the Arabs.
And now the wait.