A pioneering trip to the Qatari capital of Doha earlier this month gave UCFB students the opportunity of meeting some of the movers and shakers behind the 2022 World Cup. Conor Walsh, studying MSc Sports Management at UCFB Wembley, is one of a number of students who got to learn all about the Gulf country and it’s build up to hosting the 22nd edition of the tournament. Here, Conor tells us about the unique trip and what the World Cup means to Qatar…

On 19th January I left Heathrow for Doha, Qatar. Myself and many of the travelling party held reservations about our hosts suitability to stage a major sporting event, let alone the World Cup finals in 2022. Fast forward one week and many of us have had our questions answered emphatically. A week dedicated to visiting and inspecting World Cup stadia and facilities, which shouted superfluous propaganda, was anything but.

Behind the jaw dropping, astonished expressions and head circling was the unbelievable, wholehearted work ethic of the Supreme Committee, Aspire Academy, and Qatar FA (QFA) among others. The one common denominator between all the speakers was the zealous fire in their bellies. Although arguably still learning in some areas, they will not compromise on their vision even if many of us don’t see the path. Hopefully the below sheds some light on the footballing revolution that will shake up our world.

The football revolution shaking up the world

Conor visited several World Cup 2022 stadiums during the trip

No sooner had we rested our heads on the pillow than our first morning began. Our tour bus set off through the manic Doha rush hour traffic, traversing the breadth of the city before arriving at the Aspire Academy complex. Upon arrival we were guided around by members of the QFA who gave us a memorable tour. Taking into account it was the first of the 2022 World Cup stadiums we had visited, many of us could only express our astonishment, in particular with the lush playing surface and revolutionary air-cooling system which had sparked some consternation in the media. Making our way through the ground depicting countless murals and mosaics in tribute to the Emir, we were gathered in the press conference room where the first of our talks took place.

We were all enthused and equally as privileged to have been joined by Fabien Dilem, General Manager of the MEA and India markets for Paris St Germain. Fabien gave a thoroughly insightful and intriguing look in to the operations of one of the world’s leading clubs. Fabien gave insight into the club’s recruitment policy, brand awareness, eSports activities and the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Fabien was great to learn from and to his credit was particularly engaging, rebuking none of even the most sensitive questions. He was followed by Burrda Sports’ Chief Operating Officer, Collin Allan, whose talk was relevant for many and provided a true example of how with true grit and desire you can break down barriers in life and strive for success. The South African spoke of how he and others helped raise the profile of Burrda, in the process making them a huge player in the Asian sportswear market.

Tradition and modernity

UCFB students met the England women’s football team and Manager Phil Neville

After leaving the bowels of the Khalifa Stadium, we returned once more to the pitch where we were surprisingly greeted by the England women’s team, who were enjoying the final day of a week-long training camp. Manager Phil Neville even took time out from his busy schedule to engage with our travelling party and pose for photos. The evening activities then illustrated the tug of war which now exists in the state of Qatar between tradition and modernity. Amid the amazing Aspire facilities was the stupendous and equally exquisite Villaggio shopping mall, which among its amenities counts an indoor theme park, ice-rink and gondola ride. After twenty minutes negotiating the evening traffic it was almost as if we were teleported to the 19th century landing at the famous Souq Waqif. A truly iconic and cultural staple in Qatari society, it has been immaculately preserved with the hallmarks and Bedouin tradition along with numerous bazaars. Strolling through this iconic landmark provided an authentic flavour of what our hosts had to offer.

The second day came just as quickly, and having eventually defeated the jet lag we made our way to Al-Bidda tower located in Doha’s corniche. Situated directly opposite our hotel, we ventured to downtown Doha made up of dozens of skyscrapers improbably planted in the landscape. The tower itself was home to the offices of the Supreme Committee and the QFA, among other organisations. We were directly taken towards the top to the home of the Supreme Committee and Josoor Institute responsible for delivering the 2022 World Cup. Vazken Kirkjian, Josoor Institute Project Manager, and head of CSR, Matthias Krug, delivered the three-hour long tour of the pavilion. It served to not only change the visitors’ apprehensions regarding Qatar hosting the World Cup but highlighted the true ambition and vision behind it all. We soon began to learn it was not just for sporting purposes but about leaving behind a legacy transforming a whole nation in the process.

Legacy-defining arenas

Utilising some of the latest smart technology, the Supreme Committee illustrated the infrastructure and positive social impacts which are to be gained from the 2022 finals. Numerous questions surrounding continuing development and planning were fielded and answered. Upon exhibiting some of the latest stadiums to be built for 2022, the sensitive topic of worker’s safety was mentioned. Our hosts did not reject claims there were site-related incidents but the purported figures of hundreds if not thousands were scandalously off the mark. No details were spared as our hosts revealed the thinking and methods behind constructing these unprecedented, legacy-defining arenas. Despite an unlimited budget their commitment to environmental sustainability and legacy was revolutionary to say the least. Not only will the playing facilities serve to bring some of the latest generation of Qatari players forward, but they will also serve as knowledge hubs attracting foreign investment and expertise, which is all part of the country’s strategic 2030 vision.

The World Cup stadiums form part of Qatar’s strategic 2030 vision

Matthias Krug, who heads up the CSR department for the Supreme Committee, provided unique insight and knowledge pertaining to the legacy and community work carried out by his department. As this is an area I have a firm vested interest in, it was fascinating to hear of initiatives such as ‘Koora Time’ and their ever growing commitment to women’s football as all part of their “generation amazing”. Matthias spoke of cross collaboration with last summer’s hosts Russia and some of the football development projects they have in place worldwide, particularly in Asia. Having accessed research prior to our visit containing detailed information regarding these initiatives, I was aghast as to why so little media coverage had highlighted the astounding work. Our tour of the pavilion concluded with sampling some traditional karak tea which was a reflection of the amazing hospitality provided from our hosts throughout our stay.

“Generation amazing”

Shortly after we were directed to the summit of Al-Bidda tower, providing us with some of the most scenic views of Doha. Then it was time for Gordon Penney, health, safety, security and environment manager (HSSE) of the Supreme Committee to deliver his inspiring and motivating speech on resilience. Gordon spared little or no detail on his own leadership journey and was clear as to the challenges going forward facing members of the Supreme Committee. A lot of observations were attained in the 45-minute window, with Gordon clearly leaving his mark on our group. Gordon spoke of developments in employee welfare such as relaxation rooms and the importance of creating an open yet mutually beneficial environment in the workplace. Without doubt, by having a man of his expertise and intuition Qatar are certainly in place to deliver an amazing World Cup in alignment with their mantra, “generation amazing”.

Demetris Zenetos and Sergio Bravo of the QFA then concluded our visit with a presentation on their strategic objectives and mission going forward. An eye opener for many fans of European football, Demetris spoke of the plethora of resources available to Qatar Super League clubs. However, this was counterbalanced with the inherent limitations of these so called “golden handcuffs”. The stated ambition of the QFA chiefs was to break even by 2022. Their excitement was infectious as they spoke about the magnificent CSR operations in full effect, along with the possible socio-economic developments they hope will be derived from the build-up to 2022 and the finals.

If it was not evident from our earlier visit of the Josoor Institute, every organisation in Qatar tasked with delivering an aspect of the 2022 finals were taking the slogan of “generation amazing” to heart. Afterwards our group dissembled and departed for the Aspire Academy complex, which was hosting four of Russia’s top clubs that had gathered for the week as part of their pre-season training. Thanks to Feras Btaddini, head of Aspire dome, we received free tickets for the Spartak Moscow vs FC Rostov game which provided a fitting way to close the day’s activities. The two Russian clubs were joined by Zenit St.Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow at the Aspire Academy who all trained at the complex as part of their pre-season training.