Power struggle ahead of Qatar 2022
Hassan al-Thawadi is the general secretary of the 2022 Qatar Supreme Committee and a Liverpool fan. His opponent in the upcoming election to win a place on FIFA's Executive Committee is Sheikh Salman, who supports Manchester United. Usually, that would be a nice little bit of spice to add to the main dish, but the whole campaign itself is a sideshow. Wherever al-Thawadi goes, everyone just wants to know about 2022.
It's understandable. Qatar's World Cup is never out of the headlines, with March a mad example: the two most powerful men in football, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, talked at length about what could and should happen nine years from now. Then there was the story in the UK's Times newspaper of a 'Dream Football League' about to start that would see the world's top teams paid unimaginable sums every two years to play a tournament in Qatar. A few years ago, such a story would have been met with bemusement, but now it elicits a knowing nod. Qatar and money and football are a familiar mix. The Times got it wrong but maybe the real story was how readily people believed it.
The 34 year-old Al-Thawadi - who it is said knows everything that is happening in Qatari football - was in an unfamiliar position. "When the 'Dream League' story came out, my team called me up and said: 'We've been getting more calls about this than anything before', and I just wanted to know what was going on. We had no idea," he told ESPN over his breakfast of eggs on toast and green tea. "I told my team: 'Don't take it to heart, just let it go'. I think that, gradually, you have to pick your battles because otherwise we would be constantly tugged into these issues... the main response will be on the ground and delivering our promises. That will put a lot of these issues to bed but, up until then, we have to keep our chins up."
That could be a long time in the future. Qatar's triumph in securing the World Cup was not exactly welcomed by much of the international media. A tiny country of barely more than a million inhabitants and blisteringly hot in the summer, few expected it could win. Even those who thought it could never really thought it would. With all the money that was spent, there was a general assumption that some of it must have been ended up in the pockets of FIFA Executive Committee members who made the call in December 2010 in Zurich. There are fewer headlines about bribery these days. Though the search continues, the smoking gun has not been found.
Al-Thawadi, also CEO of the 2022 bid team, believes that the attitude to Qatar is becoming less hostile but admits that there is a long way to go. Twenty-eight months on, he is still on the defensive and, while he says he expected criticism, the intensity and longevity of it has surprised. "Some people started taking brutal attacks, but not one of them - not one of them - took our bid and analysed it. If someone did that and destroyed it then I would say, 'Fair enough'.
"The criticism that came, if you read it today, was: 'Qatar should not have won. What does Qatar have? It's a small, dusty nation in the desert. It's hot and there's no alcohol'. And when the alcohol situation got resolved, they moved to there's no alcohol in the stadiums. 'There's not this, this and that.' For us, we just thought: 'Have you heard what we were saying in the process? Have you heard what our bid is about? Yes, we are a small nation but it is a compact World Cup, it's unique. If we are successful, it opens it up for other nations to bid.'
"We wanted to engage the media as much as possible to tell our narrative correctly to avoid - if we ever won, which I thought we had a good chance of doing - that the first thing that people say is: 'They cheated'. Instead they say: 'This is their narrative'."
At the moment, it isn't about cheating or any narrative but the heat. While some members of the FIFA Executive Committee didn't seem to know, the rest of the world was aware that the country bakes in the summer. The stadiums will be air-conditioned; Al-Sadd's home in Doha has a 'first generation' cooling system and it works well, as will fan zones. There's still the issue of what everyone else will do. The locals avoid the afternoon sun, and expats, often with less success, try to avoid the 'Doha stone' weight gained from only ever walking as far as your car.
A move to winter has been mooted by big names such as Franz Beckenbauer and more recently UEFA president Michel Platini, who actually voted for a summer World Cup in Qatar. It may sound nice in theory, and the weather is very nice in practice, but there is the small matter of rearranging the whole domestic season in Europe and elsewhere as well as the fact that Qatar won a contest that was held with the sole intention of finding a host for a summer World Cup.
The organisers have always said that their plan is to hold the tournament in the summer but also say a switch is no problem should the football world request it. In March, Blatter said that Qatar would have to ask for the change but warned that, if it did, there could be a re-vote. Qatar is not about to ask. "Today, we are moving towards a summer World Cup. We know there is an issue with the heat... but we are looking at solutions. In the evenings, it's not as hot and let's not forget that other World Cups have been held in similar if not more intense circumstances and they were successful. At the very least, we are developing cooling technologies."
Talk turns to his campaign against Sheikh Salman. Al-Thawadi denies that he is seeking a place on FIFA's Executive Committee to safeguard 2022 and laughs at the suggestion that it is a way to at least find out what is being said or plotted by FIFA bigwigs.
The Qatari was instrumental in bringing the World Cup home but this much more personal and low-key battle - for which the vote will be held by the AFC in early May - will be just as tough. Salman ran former Asian chief Mohamed bin Hammam very close in a 2009 vote for the committee and hasn't really stopped running since. The chief of the Bahrain FA and member of the country's ruling family is a formidable opponent. "Sheikh Salman is a friend and, in contrast to him, I am not an experienced campaigner but I believe that I have a chance of winning and representing Asia. The pendulum is swinging towards Asia."
Salman is going for the main prize of the AFC presidency at the same time, and is one of three candidates from West Asia. "In the last West Asian Federation meeting, a lot of people were looking for one candidate and a West Asian president but I just want the best person to win." UAE FA boss and another candidate Yousuf al-Serkal is a friend. "He is well-known in Asian circles and is a well-respected man and he is aware of the needs and necessities of the AFC based on his experiences. Dr Hafez (Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia) is a good technocrat and Makudi in Thailand is there too. They all have a good chance. Whoever wins has a very big responsibility."
The same can be said for al-Thawadi even if he loses.