Soccernomics and the FIFA World Cup

FIFA announced on 3 December 2010 that Russia will be the host of the 2018 World Cup, while in 2022 the tournament will be hosted by Qatar. The announcement led to a frenzy of controversy regarding the selection, with accusations of corruption and the influence of petrodollars, but equally raised questions as to the capabilities of the two countries to host these events.

The Middle East Perspective

Rival countries claimed that Qatar won due to its economic wealth rather than any sporting incentive. Concerns were voiced that Qatar is an unsuitable selection due to the harsh climate and desert landscape, the small size of the country and the lack of additional cultural attractions and of a long sporting tradition.

Qatar raising its profile

Qatar’s real economy has been growing at a fast pace due to higher world energy prices and the increasing production of natural gas, averaging 13% per annum over 2000-2009. As a result. the country is one of the richest economies in per capita terms in the world.

The Qatari government, however, is aiming to diversify its economy away from the extensive oil and gas reserves as per its 2030 Vision plan. One means of doing so is to invest heavily in the development of tourism in the same vein as the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the Middle East.

Business focus

To date, the larger share of the tourism pie to Qatar are business arrivals driven by the oil and gas industries, mainly from GCC countries. High-end tourism developments were built such as the Lusail City and the planned Qatar Entertainment City.

In addition, through the activity of the Qatar Investment Authority (a sovereign wealth fund valued at US$75 billion), the country has been raising its international profile by heavily investing globally. Domestically, several large infrastructure projects are underway to improve electricity, water, roads and airports. These total more than US$200 billion and may involve some foreign participation.

Finding its niche – sports tourism

Sports tourism appears to be growing throughout the Middle East. Qatar was one of the countries which fully embraced this new trend in an effort to appeal to international markets and to increase country awareness.

According to the Qatar Tourism Authority, the country has invested US$2.8 billion in infrastructure over the last several years, particularly in sports tourism. It is also expected that during the next five years, Qatar will invest US$17 billion into the tourism infrastructure – building a new airport, port and expanding hotel capacity.

The new US$14.5 billion Doha International airport is set to open in 2012 and will have the capacity to accommodate 25 million passengers, with room to grow by 2015 and there are also plans to build a metro system for Doha.

Not a novice

In 2006 Qatar hosted the Asian Games with an estimated 10,000 athletes from all 45 countries. The event brought competitive advantage for the country through the construction of world class facilities for many sporting disciplines of this event.

2008 was another full sporting year for Qatar. Aside from long-established annual events like the ATP Tennis Championship, the European PGA Golf Masters tour and the Qatar Moto GP, it also saw the country host the Qatar Squash Championships, one of the nine rounds of the F1 World Powerboating Championships and an international athletics meeting for the IAAF Qatar Super Grand Prix.

Visitor attendance levels at some events, however, were disappointing, an aspect which Qatar has to take into consideration as part of its preparation for the World Cup in 2022. A real testament to how this can be addressed will be in 2011 when Qatar will be hosting the Asian Football Cup.

Vision for the 2022 World Cup

The country plans to build 12 stadiums, boost hotel capacity with some 70,000 hotel rooms, and improve its infrastructure, backed by a staggering US$50 billion.

In order to address the scepticism regarding the hot weather conditions in Qatar and its impact on the games, new cooling technologies are expected to be implemented which experts believe will keep the temperature much cooler.

The new systems will be carbon neutral using solar technology. In addition, these stadiums will be able to be disassembled after the World Cup and reassembled in several developing countries which is in line with the “pop-up” trend seen in the travel and tourism industry.

Hurdles ahead

  • Delivering all of the required facilities and infrastructure for the event in a tough climate and with a small population will be a major challenge for Qatar
  • The proposed cooling systems for the new stadiums have not been tested before and it remains to be seen how they will operate at such a large scale
  • The lack of alternative activities for the football fans in between the games when the temperature is expected to reach 50°c raises concerns
  • The absence of a sporting tradition and strong local football team
  • Issues such as threat of terrorism, fear of strict Shari’a laws with regards to alcohol consumption, homosexuality and treatment of women

Back of the net

  • The winning bid of Qatar is welcomed by the whole region as it is expected to raise the profile of Middle East, but equally help address the tension between the Muslim world and the West post 9/11.
  • Mega projects will be launched
  • The vast population of Saudi Arabia, Egypt will boost visitor numbers to the World Cup
  • Provides opportunity for the country to put any misconceptions at bay

The Russian perspective

The choice of Russia to host the Winter Olympics in 2014 in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup is another example of an unexpected country selection according to many. However, it reinforces the strategic approach of international sport organisations like FIFA to put regions such as Eastern Europe on the map.

Those two major events will help transform the poor infrastructure in Russia, encourage investment desperately needed in many cities in the country, bring serious regeneration and construction projects. Major upgrades and capacity increases will also have a long lasting impact on many industries in Russia.

Russia is one of the major sporting powers in the world with a very strong sport culture among Russians and these events will boost the transition process in the country following the breakup of the Soviet Union, leaving an even stronger legacy.

The Games will help to increase the popularity of the destination among international travellers, but equally boost domestic travel which will have a positive impact on tourism receipts. However, transport logistics, visa issues and the immediate start of construction are areas that need to be addressed by Russia in order to achieve its goal for the successful organisation of both events.