In March this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc, the world ground to a halt – and the sports sector was no exception. For the first time since the Second World War, national leagues, continental tournaments, and even the Olympic Games were called off, rendering the sporting calendar bare - an unprecedented series of events in peace time.
Qatar’s government quickly took the wise decision to suspend all sporting activities across the nation. However, with the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 growing ever closer, the country’s sporting bodies had some tough decisions to make. How would their national football team, who are currently ranked 54th in the world, continue to train for the biggest challenge of their careers? How could stadium and infrastructure deadlines be met, while continuing to safeguard the workforce?
Speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) last week, Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), recalled this tumultuous period, and shed light on the decision-making process that ensued. The SC began by identifying those most at risk due to underlying health conditions and isolated them, assuring employees that the measures would have, “no effect on salaries, and food and accommodation [would be] covered for any individual forced to temporarily relocate.”
Working alongside the local health authorities, the SC introduced their own 1000-capacity isolation facility, allowing them to minimise the risk of infection amongst their workforce. “The proactive strategy we employed enabled us to manage the spread of COVID-19 on our projects for up to six weeks, until the first case was reported,” Al Thawadi stated.
Such stringent measures allowed for the Education City stadium to open its doors on the 15th of June 2020. While previous stadiums have been inaugurated amidst glitzy ceremonies at prestigious competition finals, this time around the organising committee knew they would have to get creative, staging a digital opening event alongside a poignant tribute to the frontline workers assisting in the fight against COVID-19. Nasser Al Khater, CEO of Qatar 2022, admitted that this was a bold move. “It was very challenging to organise a digital event during the pandemic, but we didn’t want to hold back. We wanted to be innovative and pay tribute to the frontline health workers. The live programmes we produced in collaboration with Qatar Foundation and beIN SPORTS were a fitting tribute to everyone who has given so much to fight this dreadful virus.”
The SC’s isolation facility was able to close in mid-August due to a significant drop in cases. However, Al Thawadi acknowledges that the situation is ever-evolving, and continues to be monitored as such.
The SC were not the only entity in Qatar’s vibrant football sector facing challenges. Sporting activities were initially suspended for two weeks, and few could have imagined that, four months down the line, the Qatar national team would still not be back on the pitch. Once play finally did resume, it was in vastly different circumstances. Stringent health and safety protocols were implemented, with constant testing, strict isolation and severe fines imposed for anybody found to be breaking the new rules.
Complimenting the QNB Stars League’s efforts to facilitate the safe return of football, Al Arabi skipper Aron Gunnarsson said: “The QSL has tried everything possible to make sure that football can return back to normal. You have to compliment them for getting football back to normal in Qatar. If you look at other countries in the region, they have not been able to get football back yet. We feel that the players are safe and ready to kick on again.”
Despite the hunger to recommence the league, Ahmed Abbassi, QSL’s Executive Director of Competition and Football Development stressed, “It was never a case of being one of the first (in the region) to start,” and that QSL“never felt a pressure to be the first.” It was a case of safety first, every step of the way.
The state-of-the-art cooling systems in place at the majority of Qatar’s football arenas may have played a part, as they allowed the likes of the QNB Stars League and the AFC Champions League to go ahead, which would otherwise have been an impossibility during the hot summer months.
The cooling technology was a key factor in the decision to host the AFC’s postponed Champions League West Region Group Stage matches from the 14th of September onwards, and Al Khater saw this as a real opportunity to trial the infrastructure in advance of 2022.
“We are very eager to test out the innovative cooling systems we have installed in the World Cup host stadiums,” he revealed, “which maintain a temperature of between 18 and 24 degrees, which in turn will help fans to feel more comfortable during a period of the year when the high summer temperatures have not fully abated.” Al Khater also expressed his pride that Qatar is, “playing an active role in the safe and gradual return of football activity on a continental level for football fans across the world,” despite the fact that fans cannot currently be present. Despite such enforced restrictions, he shared his belief that “football has the power to bring people together even through their screens,” to help alleviate some of the hardships that millions of people are facing.
With two years to go until the tournament kicks off, the efficacy of recently discovered vaccines are – at long last – allowing football fans the world over to, once again, contemplate a spectacular footballing festival. Al Thawadi recognises the newfound responsibilities Qatar 2022 has to the global community, amid the realisation that it could well be the biggest post-Covid event on the international calendar. Since the celebration of the three-year countdown, the goalposts have indisputably moved - something which the organisers are keen to account for. “We’re acutely aware of the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic around the world,” Al Thawadi revealed, “and are striving to offer an affordable and safe World Cup. As societies strive to emerge from lockdowns, sport is playing an important role in our journey toward a return to normalcy… In many ways, I believe Qatar 2022 has become even more important due to recent events.”