By Masoud Hossein

Qatar 2022 a tournament for entire of Asia: Nasser Al Khater

December 10, 2020 - 2:45

TEHRAN - Nasser Al Khater, CEO of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, believes that the prestigious tournament is not just for his country and is an event for the entire Asian continent.

In an exclusive interview with Tehran Times, Al Khater also praised Iranian giants Persepolis after they could book a berth in the 2020 AFC Champions League and brought happiness to their millions of fans.

Persepolis will meet the champions of East Zone in the 2020 ACL Final slated for Dec. 19 at the Al Janoub Stadium.

Special thanks to Mehrdad Masoudi for making this exclusive interview possible.

TEHRAN Times: Qatar has hosted the East Zone from Nov. 18 to Dec. 13. It could be even better because the Qatar Local Authorities and Ministries have had more experiences to hold the event after you successfully hosted the 2020 ACL West Zone tournament. Your views on hosting the East Zone tournament and the AFC Champions League final?

The world has witnessed many challenges in 2020, challenges that people from every walk of life and most industries are still trying to understand and navigate. Football is no different. At the outset of this global pandemic, FIFA gave clear instructions to its member confederations and associations that the health and safety of every single individual associated with the game should be at the heart of any future plan to resume domestic and international competitions. Qatar’s position on the pandemic on a national level was no different and our health ministry’s response has been exemplary and one of the best in the world.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) entered into several consultation sessions with its member associations to draw up a roadmap to resume their critical competitions. While some competitions could be postponed until 2021, the AFC, like UEFA and other confederations, had to conclude their flagship continental club competition in the 2020 calendar year to fulfil their commercial obligations and most importantly, avoid any further calendar congestion in 2021.

With the health and safety of players and organizers of paramount importance, travel restrictions across a vast continent such as Asia and a huge number of games yet to be played, the AFC decided that a centralized format was the most plausible proposal for their Champions League tournament and began exploring with national federations and their participating clubs.

Once that concept was approved, the Qatar Football Association stepped forward to volunteer as host nation to stage the AFC Champions League West Zone’s 39 remaining group stage and knockout stage matches in September and October. Qatar’s football family worked alongside the AFC and the country’s health authorities, as well as a number of other entities in Qatar, to draft strict health and safety protocols to ensure that a bio-secure environment could be developed and delivered for the tournament to protect everyone involved, both on and off the pitch.

It was a huge undertaking and we’re proud to be able to look back at what we all achieved. We had sixteen teams and 39 matches to organize across four venues in just twenty days, representing the largest football tournament in size since FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™. All delivered in the midst of one of the most challenging time of our lives and the most challenging period for football in decades.

Despite one club not arriving in Qatar due to members of their delegation having tested positive ahead of their departure, we along with our AFC colleagues managed to successfully stage the competition in a safe and secure manner. That success, combined with strict travel restrictions in between Eastern Asian countries, meant it was an easy decision for the AFC to decide that the Champions League East Zone matches needed to be played centrally too and Qatar was the safest place to do it. Qatar was happy to once again help the AFC and we were ready and excited to host the four East Zone group and knockout stage matches and a total of 41 matches, including the grand finale on 19th December.

We will have hosted a total of 76 matches over a period of 50 days by the time the AFC Champions League final is concluded on Dec. 19 at Al Janoub Stadium – one of the proposed venues for the FIFA World Cup 2022. Hosting these matches has also helped us prepare for our biggest national sporting moment in two years’ time when we host the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. These 76 matches will have helped our venue and operations teams assess and test a number of tournament readiness procedures that will help us deliver an amazing tournament in 2022.
 

 Four Iranian teams, namely Esteghlal, Sepahan, Shahr Khodro and Persepolis took part in the competition. Persepolis advanced to the final for the second time in three years and it shows that the Team have progressed well in recent years. As a top football official and a person who knows football, do you think they deserved to qualify for the final?

Persepolis have reached the last four of the AFC Champions League on three occasions in the last four years. For any team to perform consistently in a tough competition such as the AFC Champions League, they have to have a solid base to launch their continental campaign from. You cannot be lucky to reach this level year after year, especially with challenges that Persepolis had in 2018 when they reached the final with a limited number of players due to their player signing suspension.

Persepolis are one of the best-supported clubs in Asia: we noticed the nation-wide celebrations that their qualification for their second final appearance created right across Iran. They have very passionate fans which are the envy of clubs the world over, and it seemed they were playing to bring happiness to their millions of fans.

We wish them the best of luck in the final later this year and look forward to watching them battle it out at one of our new FIFA World Cup venues in a match as prestigious as the AFC Champions League Final.

To arrange a tournament like this is not an easy job because coronavirus pandemic restricted all activities across the world. What’s the secret behind the great success? 

I couldn’t agree more, but there is a precedent in Qatar – we once organized a FIFA World Youth Championship (Under-20) on a three-week notice back in 1995. Over the years we have also stepped in to host a range of other tournaments with short notice. Combine our ability to adapt and ready the country to host events at such short notice, with our events experience gained from hosting over 100 local, regional and international events each year, and it’s clear Qatar has the depth of knowledge to put events like this together in a safe and secure way. Combine that with our evolving state-of-the-art sporting and national infrastructure and it’s clear we have what it takes to host world class events, even at short notice.

Of course, this time and 25 years later since that 1995 FIFA World Youth Championship, the task was much greater as we were dealing with a global pandemic that has taken the whole world by surprise. In this past summer, we worked diligently with all stakeholders concerned both within the State of Qatar, outside global agencies and, of course, the AFC to ensure the safety of all involved from the moment they touched down in Qatar to the time of their departure.

The compact nature of the tournament, a strength that makes Qatar an ideal location for participating teams, helped us minimize travel during the AFC Champions League West and East Zone tournaments. FIFA World Cup training sites and four stadia being close to teams’ accommodation made it all possible to create this bio-secure environment. This was an advantage that we had over any other country for a competition that needed to be held in one location and not spread over a large geographical area to avoid movements during the competition. A fact not lost on AFC officials.

We then had to adopt strict health protocols that dealt with the participants’ quarantined accommodation, training facilities, stadia that would only be open and accessible to a small group of AFC, Local Organizing Committee and Host Broadcaster staff. We had to arrange frequent testing for everyone involved and delivered 7,900 COVID-19 tests during the West Zone matches, in just over three weeks, a practice that has been repeated during the East Zone competition. This exercise has required the direct involvement of the State of Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health who has lent their personnel, time and expertise to us and the Asian football officials. Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health has managed the pandemic on a national level extremely effectively so their expertise and guidance were essential.

Throughout, we have also been monitoring the latest updates on the status of the pandemic elsewhere and advice that the World Health Organization would share with countries around the world to make sure any new development would be taken into our daily operational considerations.

The successful staging of the competition, the first of its kind in the new era of a global paalndemic, has been down to the teamwork of many national and international stakeholders, above all those health workers, the real heroes around the world who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to protect all of us.
 

Experience has shown that Qatar is not investing in football for much return – at least not in the short term. What’s the main reason behind the great process?

Qataris are passionate sports, and in particular, passionate football fans.

We are about to stage the 48th edition of the Amir Cup final on Dec. 18, on Qatar’s National Day. This domestic competition is as old as our independence. Qatar was the first Asian country that reached the final of a FIFA competition in 1981, thirty-nine years ago, when we reached the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championship in Australia by overcoming Brazil and England in the knockout stages of that competition. Most recently, the Qatar National Team became Asian Champions for the first time in 2019 – which was an extraordinary moment in the country’s sporting history.

Sport plays an important role in our country’s overall long-term planning and the Qatar National Vision 2030. The state of Qatar has grassroots and professional sports at the heart of its long-term planning to ensure citizens follow a healthy lifestyle while making Qatar an international sports hub. Qatar Olympic Committee, along with the country’s other sporting stakeholders, stages over 100 local, regional and international competitions throughout each calendar year, while the Aspire Academy has become one of the world’s leading centers of excellence in the development of youth athletes. We have also become a trusted partner of many international sports organizations which in turn can help us with investment and tourism, part of our goals within the Qatar National Vision 2030.
 

The FIFA World Cup 2022 is a great opportunity to show the world how strong Qatar is. The tiny country can also be a role model for the region since it is for the first time a West Asian country has been chosen to host the FIFA World Cup. Do you think Qatar 2022 can accelerate the growth of neighboring countries as well as a long-lasting peace in the region?

There is no doubt that football has the power to bring people from every walk of life together, break down social and physical barriers and create connections between people with vastly different backgrounds. When we started bidding to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, we stated that our tournament would be a tournament for the entire region. A 28-day tournament hosted in Qatar, but a FIFA World Cup for all of the Middle East (West Asia) and Arab world and all of Asia. We emphasized that we wanted to use this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bridge the gap between East and West and introduce our beautiful country and region to billions around the world.

We all saw how Russia successfully played host to millions of fans who were experiencing Russian culture for the very first time and how pleasantly surprised everyone was with Russia’s rich culture and hospitable nature. Russia was able to prove its fiercest critics wrong. Qatar will do the same in two years’ time.

We are in a region where hospitality is an integral part of our DNA and anyone visiting Qatar or the region has experienced that. While we all have our differences around the world, football provides us with a common language. The compact nature of our tournament will make those interactions even more pronounced, too, as fans will have more time to mingle while attending more than one match in a single day.

We also know the economic benefits that a tournament the size of a FIFA World Cup offers to a host country – and an entire region. South Africa in 2010 was as a tournament for the entire African continent; we want 2022 to be a tournament for the entire Middle East (West Asia) and Arab World.

With an influx of over one million fans to the region, we are all set to benefit, whether that is helping deliver our tournament infrastructure, hosting fans, or benefiting from the global exposure for our region, attracting tourists of the future, we can all benefit from this historical tournament.

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