On Sunday 18 December, when the 2022 Football World Cup comes to a close, Qatar faces a daunting question: what happens next?
The host Middle East nation has spent 12 years preparing for the tournament, betting big that the month-long event will boost its global status and create a new tourist economy.
But when the final whistle of the competition is blown and the fans head home, the country of just 3 million people will be left with a vast network of property developments and infrastructure projects that have cost an estimated $200bn.
While some sports finance experts think the country has put measures in place to build momentum after the event, others are concerned that the swathe of new stadiums, shopping centres and state-of-the-art facilities could fall by the wayside once the World Cup ends.
“Qatar has been so preoccupied with the staging of the event and so caught up in the operational detail of delivering it that the post-tournament planning has suffered as a consequence,” according to Simon Chadwick, who has previously advised Qatar’s supreme committee for delivery and legacy.
“They’re now scrambling to define what the future will look like.”
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Chadwick, who is professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the Paris-based Skema Business School, says there is “a misalignment” between the infrastructure Qatar has built and the size of its population.
“It’s a bit like all you’ve ever dreamt of in your life is to build a mansion and invite all your friends over to party every day. You’ve now got your mansion, but you’ve discovered you don’t have many friends to invite over,” he says.
Despite the scepticism, the oil-rich nation is hoping it can use the World Cup to propel its 2030 vision — a manifesto of long-term growth goals.
One place where that grand vision is reflected is a new urban centre near Doha called Lusail.
Boasting skyscrapers, plazas and a sprawling new marina, the Lusail development is one of the biggest real estate schemes in the Middle East.
Lusail’s 80,000-seat stadium is one of seven newly-built venues that the country has constructed ahead of the World Cup.
Mired along the way by concerns over the treatment of workers hired to build the infrastructure, Qatar has spent billions of dollars redeveloping one stadium and building the seven new ones.
After the World Cup finishes, most of the sites will include long-term uses ranging from hotels and shopping centres to community spaces and fitness facilities.
But Qatar hopes the venues will also become regular destinations for sports events too, having already staged the 2016 World Cycling Championships and the 2019 World Athletics Championships.
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Next year it will host the 2023 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup tournament and it has previously expressed interest in bidding to stage the Olympics, possibly in 2032.
There are signs that European football clubs could play more matches in the Middle East too: Qatar’s neighbour Saudi Arabia is due to host the 2023 Spanish Super Cup for the third year running.
Plans to create a new football European Super League fell apart last year, but if the idea was ever revived then Qatar might look to host matches, says Kieran Maguire, a football finance lecturer at Liverpool University.
“If Super League mark 2 takes place, will some of those matches effectively be up for sale to the higher bidder, given the nature of the owners? I’d anticipate that”.
However, Maguire is also doubtful of the longer-term legacy plans: “Even so, you don’t need that many stadiums. There won’t be a financial return. This is more a soft power demonstration of what can be achieved by a small nation if they put their mind to things.”
Despite mounting questions over Qatar’s post-tournament strategy, some football finance experts argue that the country is learning lessons from previous World Cup hosts who have failed to put in place long-term legacy plans.
“It appears, at least on paper, that a number of things make sense, and they are trying not to make mistakes from other World Cups,” says David Díaz, head of sports law at Baker McKenzie in Madrid.
“It was the case in Brazil that some stadiums ended up like ghosts and haven’t been used, especially the ones in remote places. It was the same in South Africa, where many of the stadiums are used but the capacity is not high.”
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Many of the stadiums will be partially dismantled once the World Cup finishes, with upper tiers of seats being given to developing nations. One stadium made of shipping containers and a modular steel structure will be taken apart entirely.
“When you look at some of the smaller facilities and see them being repurposed and reduced in size, there’s quite clearly a vision there. It’s sensible, so you don’t end up with the types of white elephants you see in some other countries,” says John Moth, a partner in KPMG UK’s deal advisory practice.
Repurposed and reduced in size, Qatar will be hoping its costly, controversial infrastructure will serve a long-term purpose fitting for the country’s 2030 vision.
But once the final match is played on 18 December, sceptics of Qatar’s ambitions might be thinking back to that famous 1966 refrain as England beat Germany in the same tournament.
“They think it’s all over. It is now.”
This article was published by Private Equity News, Financial News’ sister title
To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Sebastian McCarthy