MOSCOW: The final act of World Cup 2018 was played out not at the Luzhniki Stadium, but in Vladimir Putin's official residence, the Grand Kremlin Palace. There, FIFA president Gianni Infantino looked on as Putin took a Telstar Mechta — the match ball used in the knockout rounds — and handed it over to Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. As the curtains had fallen on Russia 2018, the countdown had begun on Qatar 2022.
That was not the only time the subject of the next World Cup came up in Russia. It briefly popped up when Infantino announced during the FIFA Congress in early June that a resolution to increase the number of teams in 2022 from 32 to 48, sponsored by a bunch of South American teams, had been shelved. Anyone walking along the banks of the Moskva River near Gorky Park in the heart of Moscow would have spotted the Majlis Qatar, an exhibition and lounge set up by the 2022 team. And then, during his closing press conference of the World Cup, Infantino revealed that the number of teams in the next World Cup has not been finalised, something that appeared to complicate things for Qatar. How do you prepare for a World Cup when you do not know how many teams you have to host?
Sitting in his lounge inside Majlis Qatar, Nasser Al Khater appears relaxed. The deputy CEO of the 2022 Local Organising Committee says that the uncertainty does not worry him. “We are very glad that the final decision stays with Qatar,” he says. “We are open. We don't want to take any decision right now. We don't understand what the format of a 48-team World Cup would be like. All I can say right now is let's wait for the feasibility study, let's wait for the consultation process. Then we will take a decision. Whatever is right for Qatar, we will do.
“We have been planning for a 32-team World Cup. That's as far as our plans go.”
One of the questions raised when the World Cup was awarded to Qatar was whether the country of its size — it is slightly bigger than Jamaica — would be able to accommodate over one million fans who turn up at World Cups. A 48-team competition would bring this issue further to the centre and there have been suggestions that the move is designed to force Qatar to share the hosting rights for the tournament. It has also been linked to neighbours Saudi Arabia who recently cut off diplomatic ties and enforced an embargo on it. Al Khater, though, is of the view that the question of co-hosting is for any potential co-hosts to answer (they have four years left, he says) and that the blockade would have no effect on World Cup plans. Nor would Qatar's size be an issue.
“We have done our estimates for over a million plus people,” he says. “We have taken a look at the accommodation that is available and what is being planned. We believe that the accommodation inventory we will have by 2022 will be sufficient because we are looking at hotels of different sizes and furnished apartments that are available. We are looking at temporary solutions such as floating hotels and cruise ships. And fans can even pitch their own tents under the desert sky — a lot of fans will actually want that as it fits within their budget and will be a unique experience.”
And while there is still four years to go, Qatar has set itself a target of finishing all preparations in two. “We have completed one stadium — the Khalifa International Stadium,” Al Khater says. “Two more stadiums will be completed by the end of this year, one more stadium by next year. And by 2020, all the stadiums will be done. The roads infrastructure will also be complete by 2020. The metro will start operational testing by the end of 2018. We are keeping a good two years as a buffer to test all our facilities.”