FIFA, the organizing body of World Cup soccer, shot the ball into their own net this week by choosing tiny Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup over Australia, Japan, South Korea, and in the final round, the United States.
Qatar sticks out off of Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf and is 4,416 square miles of land — that's 1,128 square miles smaller than the state of Connecticut. About 1,696,563 people call Qatar home, which is just a touch more than the population of Phoenix. U.S. national team player Eric Wynalda told the Associated Press that "a successful World Cup would mean the attendance would be twice the population."
Either a Qatari garden or the surface of the sun. Photo: NASA
The average daily high in Qatar during the summer ranges from 106 to 115, and there's zero chance of any precipitation falling. In the summer, Qatar turns into an oven, a giant sandy furnace in which your only hope for respite is to retreat into heavily air conditioned living spaces. In winning their bid for the 2022 World Cup, the Qatar delegation promised to construct nine new stadiums and to renovate three others at a cost of $4 billion, on top of another $50 billion they're spending to upgrade their infrastructure to handle the anticipated crowds. If past games are any indication, those cost estimates are sure to rise — although if anyone has cash to burn, it's oil-rich Qatar.
In an almost absurd gesture, the delegation promised to dismantle the new stadiums after the games to give to needy countries. These stadiums won't be enclosed domes but rather air-conditioned open-air buildings that generate cooling air from roof-top solar thermal and photovoltaic panels and then pump it onto the pitch and behind all the spectators seating. Qatar officials say their system will get the temperature down to 80°F on the field.
As a result of their country being a blast furnace more than half of the year, Qatar citizens have the highest per-capita CO2 emissions in the world with a total of 55.4 metric tons per person for 2007. For comparison the average U.S. citizen was responsible for about 18.9 metric tons in the same year. Chinese citizens produced about 4.6 metric tons.
Everyone who lands in Qatar for the games will step into a system that requires enormous amounts of fossil fuel. People who want to get around in Qatar drive; they all have air-conditioned living and work spaces, and they drink water that has to be desalinated from ocean water. The country's already huge energy footprint will balloon when the millions of fans fly in.
It's admirable that Qatar wants to harness solar power to cool the stadiums, but that doesn't diminish the reality that the stadiums shouldn't be built in the first place. It doesn't make any sense — unless you own a Qatar construction firm ‚ to spend that much money on one-use, throw away stadiums. The history of big sporting events is littered with the cast-offs of under-utilized sport stadiums, as recently as China's bird nest stadium which was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics but today sits empty and unused.
If anything, Qatar's pledge to dismantle and distribute the stadiums after the games could be the smartest option available — they won't be saddled with the cost of maintaining them. How in the world is a developing country expected to maintain the costs of running something like this?
Then there are the slaves. Qatari law allows companies to import workers who they more or less own. Workers brought into the country under this system have few rights, no choice over their employer, and can't even leave the country without their company's permission. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers toil away in Qatar under the insanely hot sun or in punishing conditions in homes, businesses, and factories, for little pay and with few days off. Their living spaces are poor and their prospects for the future bleak.
So to review, FIFA gave the World Cup to a tiny desert nation with the same climate of Death Valley (Death Valley's average July high temperature is only two degrees hotter than Qatar's) and a tiny population of slave-owning energy hogs to host the world's largest sporting event. They chose a country that will spend billions of dollars on magically cooled stadiums that will be boxed up and shipped off to poor countries after the last fan has left town (which sounds more like a threat than a promise).
The World Cup shouldn't be passed around to anyone with a sparkly story and some bribe money to throw around. It should be given to countries with the people, passion, climate and infrastructure to support it. Weather can be a tricky thing; past games in the U.S. and Mexico were played in hot weather, but those were locations where the average temperature didn't start off north of 100.
FIFA made a big mistake, but there's nothing to be done about it now. We'll watch as Qatar races to build its magical stadiums, and then we'll see what hundreds of billions of dollars of oil money can get you as the millions of soccer fans swoop down upon the country.