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The inevitable and the unbelievable

With due respect to the equally ecstatic first-time hosts from Russia, there can have been no more concentrated patch of euphoria and sheer disbelief per square metre in the world on Thursday night than in the Qatari capital of Doha. The city's iconic Corniche waterfront street was packed as always on major football occasions with honking, celebrating, incredulous Qataris and residents alike, but of course this was a celebration unlike any other.

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And for those few residents who may have resented the traffic jams which ensued as a result, the good news is that an entirely new metro and train system is being readied for the 2022 World Cup. It only needs to be built, just like the spectacularly designed Lusail International Stadium, which will now host the opening and closing matches of the World Cup in Qatar.

For those bids like England and Spain/Portugal who already have their infrastructure mostly in place and are fighting the heady effects of the financial crisis, this may seem an outrageous proposal. But Qatar has never shied away from dreaming big.

When the name emerged from the envelope on Thursday night, the destiny of this tiny Arabic country with the biggest sporting ambitions may well have changed forever. As the country's ruling Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani said after lifting the World Cup trophy in a somewhat bedazzled Zurich conference room: "A lot of people think that we are a small country, but we can accomplish great things."

And great things - from impeccable transport to well-cooled stadiums - are now indeed expected from a country which has shot almost miraculously to the top of the sports-hosting pile. From my own experience of closely following most of the major sporting events that the country has hosted since it embarked on a policy of what might be referred to as 'sports diplomacy' in the early 1990s, I believe the first Middle Eastern World Cup should be a glitzy, unique and spectacular edition, with some very welcome local touches.

Qataris pride themselves on their hospitality, which developed from their origins in the beautiful and must-see golden deserts which are sure to enchant Western fans, and new developments ranging from museums to sprawling education complexes are springing up by the year to entertain visiting fans in 12 years' time.

But how has it come so far? Some ten years ago the main question greeting a declaration that you were from Qatar was: "Where's that?" After FIFA's historic decision to opt for yet another expansion of its trademark tournament into a new region, the main questions coming my way were: "How did they do that?" and "Can I stay at your place in 2022?".

It has in all honesty been a spectacular transformation act on the part of a country that was, until just two decades ago, a complete unknown on the world stage. With this decision, change, probably the country's most familiar word anyhow, is expected to progress at an even more astonishing rate.

As one long-time resident remarked immediately after the decision was announced: "If Qatar is already full of construction sites these days, imagine how it will be now with the World Cup coming to town".

Construction will certainly be written with a capital 'C' in the coming decade in Doha, and it is perhaps one of the only countries in the world that can afford such an extremely ambitious World Cup project in the wake of the financial crisis. Oil and gas riches have been invested continuously and consciously in hosting top-class sports events, so there is indeed something of the inevitable about what many football fans still feel is an unbelievable decision.

Apart from gathering hosting experience in just about every sport imaginable, huge sums have also already been channelled into producing futuristic sports infrastructure like the Aspire Academy, which is now at the heart of Qatar's efforts to put together a strong team to make it past the group stages on home soil.

The white-clad fans waving World Cup replicas from their car windows on Doha's Corniche may already be dreaming of a final appearance in 2022, but for a country that has never been to the World Cup, a second-round appearance would be a great success. Judging by Qatar's traditionally good performances in front of their frenetic home fans, and the concerted work being done in fantastic conditions at the country's youth academy, this may well be a realistic option, depending of course upon an accommodating group.

But all that is still exotic Arabian music of the future. Millions of football fans around the world are still wondering how Qatar's long-shot bid became a sudden favourite on bidding day. As the Qatar-based journalist who first reported on news of Qatar's 2022 bid for the local Gulf Times newspaper, an interview with Qatar Football Association (QFA) General Secretary Saud Abdulaziz Al Mohannadi in late December 2008 now springs to my mind. "Qatar has a very good chance of hosting the World Cup," he told me that day, and those words now sound prophetic.

But, of course, Qatar's early steps on the bidding front were met with much scepticism. Having failed with an equally highly-rated 2016 Olympic bid because of a proposed move of the competition to the cooler month of September, Qatar's bidding team, headed by Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad Al-Thani, announced on a sunny day that Qatar had in mind some special solutions for its heat problems. Indeed, those solutions would come, well-timed towards the end of the bidding campaign, in the form of solar-powered and air-conditioned stadiums which are to be entirely carbon neutral.

Their functioning will be crucial to the functioning of this futuristic World Cup, and so after a night filled with celebration and a feeling of vindication, Qatar's multi-cultural population awoke to a new question on Friday morning - the country's version of the Western Sunday. The question is this: "What now, Qatar?".

The answer is rather simple. Qatar must now work with as much persistence and dedication as it did when turning very real weaknesses into convincing strengths during the bidding process. It will not be an easy (construction-filled) road ahead, because the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar is now just 11 years away. But having come this far to show their skills and football passion to the world, Qatar and the Middle East will not disappoint now. Qatar's bidding slogan was 'expect amazing'. Now the world indeed expects nothing less. The work has only just begun.


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