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Qatar pulls off miracle to leave gleaming legacy

By James McCarthy | China Daily | Updated: 2022-11-24 07:31
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Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Doha, Qatar - November 23, 2022 General view of Mexico fans looking over Doha skyline, Qatar, November 23, 2022

I'll admit, it's quite surreal watching the World Cup unfold in the small Gulf emirate of Qatar.

I spent a significant portion of my adult life living and working there, before finally leaving in 2015, so everything I'm seeing on my TV screen looks both hauntingly familiar, and yet so very different.

Back in December 2010, when Qatar was first awarded the right to host the tournament, it seemed unthinkable to me that they would pull it off, let alone be successful. Outside of the main center of Doha and the cluster of futuristic skyscrapers in West Bay, there were large swaths of nothing. Stretching out toward the race track at Lusail and further north toward Al Koor, there was little else but a flat beige landscape, bisected by a long strip of bitumen, upon which I used to hammer some of the world's fastest supercars for a living.

The stadia, too, were pretty nondescript. Apart from the Khalifa Stadium, situated just outside of the heart of Doha, there were a handful of smaller grounds that were home to the teams of the Qatar Stars League. Some were comparable to venues found in the lower echelons of English soccer, with the capacity to hold no more than 13,000 fans, often hosting fixtures that attracted barely a quarter of that.

While these were the arenas which hosted the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in the January following the historic night when then FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter opened the envelope that stunned the world, they are very far away from the glittering stadia we are seeing on our TV screens now.

The likes of Norman Foster and the late Zaha Hadid have had their hands in reshaping the face of the tiny nation, not least in the literal cities that have sprung up around some of their creations.

What was once a dusty, empty moonscape between West Bay and Lusail International Circuit has been transformed into an urban paradise, replete with ubiquitous luxury residences, 5-star hotels, high-end shopping malls and a beautiful marina.

Where I used to live, near the historic Souq Waqif, is unrecognizable. The heart of the old souq remains the same, but it is now flanked by a massive four-block development housing everything from museums, to a Harrod's food shop, while my old apartment, instead of overlooking a typical single-story neighborhood of Afghans and Pakistani families, is now dwarfed by the opulent Banyan Tree Doha hotel, a vast shopping mall and a skyscraper so tall it's aptly named The Vertigo.

It's the dictionary definition of gentrification.

Perhaps most importantly for the city and its people, though, is the implementation of a working public transport system. A massive boon for a country with a growing population and ever-increasing urban sprawl. Personally, I would have loved to have taken my daily commute on a modern, air-conditioned subway train in the 50 C summer heat, instead of scalding myself on every interior surface of a sunbaked car. This will, arguably, be the real, lasting legacy of the World Cup.

Another concern back then, was the confluence of fans from every country competing at the tournament, given the relatively small area in which it is being played. However, some of the videos and pictures I have seen of Welsh, English, Mexican, Argentinian and Ecuadorian fans all mixing, swapping sombreros for bucket hats and having epic, late-night sing-offs in the bars and fan zones, have been a joy.

Although, at the time, I harbored strong opinions and concerns about Qatar being awarded the World Cup (and still do regarding certain issues), the ones about the organizers being able to deliver the goods, logistically, and with any sort of aplomb, have been well and truly put to rest.

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