DOHA: In this file fisheye photo taken on October 22, 2021 shows fireworks illuminating the venue during the opening ceremony of the Al-Thumama Stadium in the capital Doha, ahead of the Amir Cup final football match between Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan. - AFP

DOHA: After upending the football establishment by winning the right to host the World Cup, Qatar's preparations are heading into overdrive with a year to go as they rush to welcome more than a million fans and prove their critics wrong. The tiny Gulf state has a reputation for punching above its weight but challenges do not come much bigger than holding football's showpiece event in a desert peninsula of 2.7 million without a strong sporting tradition.

Twelve months before the November 21, 2022 kick-off, the Qatari capital Doha, which is hosting almost the entire tournament, is dotted with roadworks and building sites that are causing chaos for its inhabitants. With some Qatari infrastructure projects delayed by the pandemic, the clock is ticking more loudly than organizers might have liked, just as scrutiny of the preparations starts to rise.

However, most of the building blocks are in place, with six of the eight World Cup stadiums due to host the 16-team Arab Cup from November 30. "I've never seen a country in the world which has been so ready so much in advance... it will be like a toy store for fans when they come," FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in Qatar this week.

Qatar rocked football in 2010 when they beat favorites the United States in the World Cup bid process, a victory that sparked accusations of vote-buying -- which were hotly denied -- and questions over the country's suitability. Since then, FIFA's old guard has been toppled in a welter of corruption cases and Qatar has emerged as a major player in the sport, snapping up French giants Paris Saint-Germain and with the Qatar Foundation becoming Barcelona's first shirt sponsor.

'A lot of criticism'

Meanwhile, Qatar has faced constant criticism of the working conditions of its hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers, including those who built the World Cup stadiums. It has responded with labor reforms, although officials admit the situation is a "work in progress". "Since we won the World Cup (rights) we have received a lot of criticism. There is constructive criticism that we tried to take on board," Fatma al-Nuaimi, head of communications at the Qatar organizing committee, said last month. "We also try not to let this criticism stop us." Qatar has also come under fire for its criminalization of homosexuality.

Resource-rich Qatar has been active in other sports apart from football, holding the world athletics championships in 2019 and its inaugural Formula One grand prix takes place today, exactly a year before the World Cup opens. But the World Cup, with 1.2 million visitors pouring in -- nearly half the country's population -- is an undertaking of an altogether different scale. Serious questions are being asked about where the fans will stay, with reservations already closed at Doha's limited collection of hotels.

Officials have talked about providing floating hotels and promoting home-stays, while many fans will end up in newly built apartments and even air-conditioned tents. Even so, accommodating such numbers -- about 300,000 a day, plus 150,000 World Cup workers, according to one source with knowledge of the matter -- looks difficult.

'Uncharted waters'

"This World Cup is being implemented in uncharted waters: there has never been a mega-sporting event with so many visitors and working staff in addition to the regular population on such a small territory who will stay put for the duration," the source said. "There is simply no historic experience to draw from." Most of the World Cup stadiums will be tested, albeit with limited numbers of fans, at the upcoming Arab Cup which finishes on December 18, a year to the day before the World Cup final. The Lusail Stadium, which will host the 2022 decider, will not feature at the Arab Cup as it is undergoing "testing and commissioning of... multiple systems", its project manager told AFP last month.

Meanwhile, Qatar has pledged to vaccinate fans who are not inoculated against COVID-19, while FIFA has moved to allay concerns about the availability of alcohol in the Muslim country, where it is largely banned. "(Alcohol) will be available in designated areas during the upcoming FIFA World Cup," a FIFA spokesperson told AFP. On the pitch, holders France are strongly tipped, with England also expected to figure but European champions Italy must fight through a playoff next year just to qualify. Expectations are low for Qatar, who will make their World Cup debut after qualifying as hosts, despite their impressive Asian Cup victory in 2019. - AFP