DOHA: Qatar inaugurated the fifth stadium that will host World Cup games in 2022 with a domestic cup tie on Friday watched by thousands who either recently recovered from coronavirus or received vaccinations. Al-Thumama stadium, 12 km south of central Doha, and inspired by the lace-like Islamic gahfiya cap, will seat 40,000 fans in the Gulf nation, the most controversial hosts in a generation.
“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,” said Fatma Al-Nuaimi, head of communications at the Supreme Committee that is organizing the 2022 tournament. “We also try not to let this criticism stop us.”
The inaugural fixture, the Amir Cup, is in honor of the nation’s all-powerful ruler Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani who attended Friday’s fixture along with FIFA president Gianni Infantino. It saw Al-Sadd, under former Spain legend Xavi Hernandez, take on Al-Rayyan, coached by former France boss Laurent Blanc, with Al-Sadd winning 5-4 after a penalty shootout. “It’s my first time inside a stadium. It’s amazing,” said Julie Rule, 25, a beautician from the Philippines.
Around the stadium, which is located between suburban Doha and the blue-collar Industrial Area, migrants who outnumber Qataris seven to one gathered on dusty parcels of land to play impromptu games of pre-match cricket and football. The area around Thumama, designed by Qatari architect Ibrahim Jaidah, is best known to expatriates in Qatar for the sole off-license permitted to sell alcohol and pork, as well as the country’s only authorized Christian churches.
Energy-rich Qatar has so far inaugurated five of the eight stadiums that will be the home of the first World Cup in the Middle East. In addition to Al-Thumama, Qatar has so far inaugurated new-build Ahmad Bin Ali, Al-Janoub and Education City stadiums alongside the refurbished Khalifa ground. Ras Abu Aboud, Al-Bayt, and Lusail, which will host the final in 14 months, are yet be opened.
Following the World Cup, Al-Thumama’s capacity will be reduced to 20,000, with a sports clinic and a boutique hotel set to open on site as tiny Qatar seeks to avoid the burden of superfluous stadia. Fans were able to apply for tickets to Friday’s event if they either tested positive for virus antibodies, or have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Qatar, which says it vaccinated more than three quarters of its population, will review infection data ahead of the Arab Cup regional test tournament due to kick off in November.
Meanwhile, Nuaimi said organizers hope to attract 1.2 million tourists to the country, hosting them in traditional hotels and “innovative” accommodation. “We hope that during the World Cup, more than 1.2 million visitors from around the world will attend,” she said. “They will not (all) be in the country at the same time, as the event extends over a period of 28 days.”
Qatar, with a population of approximately 2.75 million, will be the first ever Middle East World Cup host nation between Nov 21 and Dec 18 next year. In addition to the hotels already available, Nuaimi said there were other “innovative and temporary” solutions to hosting visitors. Those include accommodation on cruise liners, hotel apartments, fan villages with an Arabian desert vibe, as well as stays in private homes.
Officials have said 16 floating hotels will also be built, providing around 1,600 rooms in total. Nuaimi said the “Host a Fan” initiative will give visitors an opportunity to learn about Qatari culture. “We are a hospitable people, and this will be applied to the World Cup as well,” she told AFP. Qatar had earlier said it expected as many as 1.5 million people to descend on the tiny Gulf nation for the World Cup, and in the months before and after the big event.
Some fans and commentators have expressed concerns that the conservative Gulf country may not offer visitors the same experience as past tournaments. Nuaimi said while alcohol was not part of Qatari culture, “alcoholic beverages will be available in designated areas”.
Qatari authorities have repeatedly insisted that they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare and say they have “always been transparent about the health and safety of workers”. Nuaimi stressed that “98 percent of the construction was ready, and preparations will be completed by the end of the year”. – Agencies