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Qatar 2022: The making of a sports nation

Lionel Messi accepts the World Cup trophy from the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Fifa president Gianni Infantino after Argentina defeated France on penalties at the Lusail Stadium Reuters/Dylan Martinez
Lionel Messi accepts the World Cup trophy from the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Fifa president Gianni Infantino after Argentina defeated France on penalties
  • World Cup stadiums to be used for local communities
  • Substantial investment began in 2004 with Aspire Academy
  • Health benefits part of overall strategy

From Formula 1 to the 2030 Asian games, Qatar’s hosting of a series of major events before and after the World Cup has reinforced its role in the global sporting diary. 

Having built eight stadiums for the 2022 tournament, the Gulf state now boasts an infrastructure that will make it a go-to location for many other activities.

But that raises a question as to what the sporting legacy will be for Qatar itself. Splashing investment on major arenas is one thing. Inspiring future generations of footballers and athletes in the country is a trickier prospect. 

However, it is an ambition the Qataris believe they can achieve. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy designed the World Cup stadiums to have a lasting impact on local communities, with some of the larger venues to be downsized to support local football teams.

The stadium precincts are intended to deliver a tangible legacy for the country’s growing population. Three in particular —Al Janoub, Al Bayt and Ahmad Bin Ali — were designed as community hubs.

On Qatar National Sport Day 2020, the Supreme Committee opened public parks at Al Janoub and Al Bayt, in a bid to demonstrate the country’s legacy commitment to inspire health and fitness. 

There is space for a wide range of activities, not just football. Covering an area larger than 30 soccer pitches, Al Bayt Stadium Park boasts exercise stations and tracks for cycling, running and horse and camel riding. 

At All Wakrah, the area surrounding the 40,000-capacity Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the Qatar Community Football League holds weekly matches on the six pitches, while residents and locals also use the facility’s running and cycling tracks, cricket pitches, tennis courts, skate park and aquatics centre.  

Qatar hope that their World Cup team will inspire the next generation of sports stars
Qatar hope that their World Cup team will inspire the next generation of sports stars

Danyel Reiche, visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, who has undertaken research into the impact of hosting the World Cup, says there are three main pillars to Qatar’s approach.

First is the hosting of major sporting events, such as the Asian Games.

Second is the sponsorship of prestigious sporting brands, whether Bayern Munich (through flag carrier Qatar Airways) or the ownership of Paris Saint-Germain FC.

The third pillar, and one that gets much less attention, is developing local talent.

“Although Qatar’s football team didn’t do well in this World Cup [losing all three of their group games], it’s still remarkable that when you have just 5,000 active football players, you can manage to have a competitive national football team that can win the Asian championships,” Reiche said.

That achievement is rooted in sustained investment in sport dating as far back as 2004 when the Aspire Academy was formed.

“The Aspire Academy has become a global benchmark for sports academies that people from all over the world travel to Qatar to see,” Reiche added.

“Then there’s the promotion of grassroots sports such as a national sports day on every second Tuesday in February.”

While Qatar’s approach has been to use its substantial wealth, whether through big money sponsorships designed to get itself a position in high-level global sporting networks, or through investment in cutting-edge stadiums, there is more work to be done at grass roots level.

“You can change the infrastructure overnight, but you can’t change the culture,” Reiche said. “For example, Qatar has done very well in developing male athletes. The next challenge is to overcome barriers for female sport participation.”

Some of the 70 training pitches built in advance of the World Cup will be used by women footballers as well as men. 

French club Paris St Germain's men and women's teams are sponsored by Qatar Airways
French club Paris St Germain’s men and women’s teams are sponsored by Qatar Airways. Picture: Reuters

Qatar’s pursuit of a sporting legacy is not an academic exercise. There is also a clear health imperative propelling the strategy, in a country where one recent study found 42 percent of Qatari students were overweight. 

“Qatar is one of most obese nations in the world so if there’s a genuine push on health that’s very important, especially given that this is also one of the most pressing security concerns,” said David Roberts, author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State.  

“Of course, nothing is monocausal. People talk about soft power, about the investment and the politics. Improving domestic health is in there too, even if it isn’t the most important element,” Roberts added. 

Progress is being made elsewhere that will also benefit Qatari women. Ten years ago, beach volleyball’s officials insisted on women wearing bikinis. Now a more inclusive dress code has been implemented.

Another area of legacy will be in Qatar’s nascent sports technology sector. The Qatar Sports Tech (QST) domain was launched in 2018 by Qatar Development Bank to leverage the country’s role as the host of the 2022 World Cup and position it as a global centre for sports tech development.

QST offers accelerator and pre-accelerator programmes for global technology startups focused on innovations such as improving athlete performance. 

The World Cup has ensured a place for Qatar in the global sporting pantheon. Now the authorities must ensure that the legacy is as inclusive as possible for a local population that wants to be active participants as well as spectators.