"World Cup 2022 is a chance to build bridges between cultures"
The CEO of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Hassan Al Thawadi, visited the offices of AS and gave an exclusive interview on preparations for the event.
How is everything going?
Very well, we are being blockaded by our neighbours but other than that, everything’s fine [laughs]. Spain also appears to be going through a curious moment… but in terms of our project we are moving ahead rapidly. We unveiled a new stadium last year, the Al Khalifa.
Some of us were there, and we were cold although it was 40º degrees outside!
It is important to explain that our technology works and that it works very well. We first installed it in Al Saad’s stadium, which is smaller. The El Khalifa is much larger and more open, with capacity for 45,000 spectators. And the air conditioning system works to perfection. The energy it uses is 40 per cent renewable.
Will this technology be wasted if the World Cup is played in November and December?
It may be that it is not really necessary but we will use it. We’re talking about a facility that is also our national stadium and it will be used for a lot of events in the future.
What will happen to the other stadiums after the World Cup?
Some of them will be used for our national football competitions and to host other sports. And for future events that we will stage in the country. There will only be two or three that we will dispense with. It depends on the area. There is one, in the southern city of Al Wakrah, where we asked the local residents what use they would like to see it put to in the future. Hotels, schools, a wedding venue… and we have designed it so that it can be converted for these uses after the World Cup. There are stadiums where the seats can be removed and the stadium will remain in place and be adapted for other means. There are others that will be taken down piece by piece.
"We are planning a multi-ticket for fans to watch more games"
And what will be done with those?
They will be rebuilt on a smaller scale in other countries that need help in developing football.
How many stadiums will there be in total?
We plan to build eight. But we will have to discuss it with Fifa. At the moment we haven’t received a definitive answer. In South Africa there were 12, there will be 16 in Russia…
How many games will it be possible to play simultaneously?
Four simultaneously in the last four days of the group stage. That’s the maximum. With the stadiums being so close together we are going to try and come to an agreement with Fifa to create a multi-ticket so that fans can watch more than one game in a day.
What can fans travelling to the World Cup expect?
It will be comfortable for all visitors. Fans won’t have to travel or change hotels, which would be an inconvenience if you don’t know whether your team will be in the next round. It will be similar to an Olympics atmosphere, with everything very centralized. The players can concentrate just on playing, because they won’t have to move around. It will be the same for journalists, when something happens they can be on the spot very quickly. Everybody will save a lot of energy.
What will the average temperature be in November and December?
Between 28º and 30º, more or less… but the climate is very comfortable at that time of year.
Will there be fan zones?
We have a very novel idea, which is to set them up close to the sea and in the desert, with tents. It will be a kind of camp site where you can have a wonderful experience. The fans can enjoy the desert culture and the sea. The fans zones will become a chance to experience the Arab world and in some of them visitors will be able to stay and sleep. The first prototype will be ready at the end of the year. The tents are magnificent. There are more standard ones and others that are more luxurious. It is a unique experience that we enjoy and we want to share it with the world.
"It will not be a problem to drink in Qatar during the World Cup"
Will this accommodation be expensive?
They are designed for everybody, not just for businessmen who travel a lot and have already seen a lot of the world. We are talking about normal people who have not had the opportunity to visit a country like ours. It is a chance to discover our world and our culture. We have the vision that this World Cup is an opportunity to build bridges between different cultures. There is no better platform for that than a World Cup. It is a huge possibility for Qatar and for the Arab world. For this reason we feel a great sense of responsibility.
Will beer be on sale?
It will not be on sale in the street but it will be available in some fan zones, but not in others. And it will not be sold in the stadiums, as is the case in Europe.
But you understand concerns over the sale of alcohol?
My message is that it will not be a problem to drink in Qatar during the World Cup. But I also have to say that I don’t think it should be a central theme of the debate. I invite those that come to explore the rich culture of Qatar and the Arab world. It is a wonderful opportunity for the fans.
Is hosting a World Cup the greatest showcase your country has ever had?
It is clear that it will lead us to connect with people from every corner of the world. And there is a positive aspect: there is a large area of the world, which contains 60 percent of countries, that beforehand could not host a World Cup because of high temperatures. But now, with the technology that we are rolling out, this will be much more feasible. That problem can now be solved and that will help football to grow more and more.
Do you think that life in Qatar will change at all after the World Cup?
We are convinced that we will be a different country after 2022. We are using this event to lay the groundwork for four pillars from 2030: firstly, human development; secondly, social development; thirdly renewable energies and finally, economic diversification. Technology, for instance, is an example of economic diversification because we are paving the way for a new industry. We are also working in the area of social development in human rights for workers.
"Conditions for workers are improving... we are open to criticism"
Have conditions for workers genuinely improved?
It is improving. But we still have some way to go, that is obvious. We need to do a lot more. We have acknowledged the problem and we have accelerated means to find a solution. Hopefully the criticism will take into account the work we are doing and the measures we are taking to improve the situation.
Are you receiving less negative publicity now?
It is getting better. We are open to any criticism because it helps us to improve. We are committed to making the situation of workers better every single day and it is coming to pass. There are a lot of initiatives in place in this regard.
There is uneasiness and a little anger within Fifa about Saudi Arabia. It has even been said that there they have removed 17 federation presidents from their posts and installed government employees. There is a current running through Fifa, of which Qatar is a member association, that if Saudi Arabia continues to create problems there may be a motion to remove them from the World Cup and award their place to Syria…
I don’t know about that… we have an important guiding principle and that is to separate politics from sport. That is why Qatar believes in the power of sport. As a country, Qatar believes in the principle of solving conflicts through dialogue. We believe in stability, for our future generations and for the future of our region. And that is what we are working towards. That is why sport forms an important part of our way of viewing life. I don’t know the details of what you said, but in terms of what is up to us, we are only concentrating on using the opportunities the World Cup will give us to further develop as a region and as a people.
Is the conflict with your neighbouring countries softening?
His Highness said recently that if someone who is at the head of a conflict walks 100 metres towards its resolution, he is prepared to walk 100,000 metres in the same direction. But with the condition that the sovereignty of Qatar is respected. That is logical.
Has the blockade affected Qatar’s plans for the World Cup? In terms of importing materials, constructors etc?
No… in the first few days we implemented a Plan B and a Plan C. We put alternatives on the table very quickly. Our project is going ahead precisely in accordance with our established plans.
Autumn World Cup: "The players will arrive with more energy"
What is the feeling among professional football leagues with respect to playing the World Cup in autumn?
There are some that are with us, and some that are not so much. I think there is consensus that it is for the best. In the end, it is the World Cup. And Fifa have decided that it will be played in this period. It will be the first World Cup held in the Middle East, in the Arab world… I think it is a sacrifice that is worth the effort. Nobody will regret it.
How do you think it will affect the tournament itself?
In principle, the players will arrive with more energy and more strength… I think it will be a good World Cup.
And the Olympic dream?
[Opens his arms] I can’t comment on that because I don’t know, genuinely.
How many people are you expecting at the World Cup?
Throughout the whole tournament, 1.2 million people. We have hotels, camp sites, cruise ships and apartments to accommodate them. We are ready.
"We hope to have a team to be proud of in 2022"
What sort of shape will Qatar’s national team be in for the tournament?
We have a lot of projects in place to improve our players, among them one in Spain at Cultural Leonesa. We are working on it. We have ups and downs but generally, with the Aspire Academy, which is a reference point in the world of sport and football, and with people like [former Real Madrid director of strategy] Iván Bravo and [former Madrid and Manchester United fitness coach] Valter Di Salvo working with us we are improving. And we hope that in 2022 we will have a team of which we can all be proud.
Is it a handicap to develop footballers in Qatar when Qataris lead economically stable lives?
Ok, you could have a point, but on the other hand we have passion for football. And hopefully that will win out overall.
Will Xavi play any role with the Qatar team in 2022?
He is already helping out. You’d have to ask him whether or not he will do so in 2022. I hope so. I have seen the impact he has had on the players, on the youngsters, how he motivates them and teaches them. Knowing him as a person and a player it is a dream to have him with us, as it was with Raúl.