DOHA: It seemed a longshot at best when Qatar announced it was bidding for the World Cup.
After all, the desert nation is located in one of the most volatile parts of the world. Temperatures soar to 48 degrees C (118 degrees F) in the summer. Entertainment for the most part begins and ends at the shopping mall.
Yet, Qataris were celebrating Thursday after FIFA voted to award them the 2022 tournament.
In beating out heavyweights like the United States and Australia, the Gulf country of 1.6 million pulled off one of the biggest upsets with a mix of high-priced PR talent, huge oil and gas wealth and audacious plans for air-conditioning almost the entire experience from fan zones to stadiums.
It was as though Qatar’s football team — ranked 113th in the world — had beaten Brazil in the World Cup final.
"Thank you for believing in change," Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, said in Zurich after the announcement was made.
Until the end, it seemed Qatar was fighting a losing battle just to be taken seriously.
A FIFA assessment raised red flags about the country’s small size and the hazards of the heat while consultants McKinsey found every other 2022 bidder would generate more revenue that Qatar. Qatar also endured an investigation into allegations that it planned to trade blocs of votes with 2018 joint bidder Spain-Portugal — charges which FIFA couldn’t prove for lack of evidence.
But behind the scenes, Qatar was winning over doubters.
It had one of the most aggressive and expansive lobbying campaign of any bidder, led by Englishman Mike Lee, who was instrumental in helping London secure the 2012 Olympics and Rio the 2016 Games.
Early on, Qatar struck a deal to sponsor the Confederation of African Football congress, negotiating an agreement that gave it exclusive access to the top officials in African football. It pitched its bid from Singapore to Brazil in the final months and invited some 20 African football federations heads to a friendly match between Brazil and Argentina just two weeks before the vote.
Japan and South Korea were also in the running for the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar secured the backing of several football legends, led by former France star Zinedine Zidane, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, Dutch great Ronald de Boer and Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
Qatar backed up this star-studded lineup with promises of money and lots of it — something that is especially attractive at time when governments including in Britain and Spain are slashing budgets.
With vast oil and gas reserves, Qatar has one of the world’s fastest growing economies — the IMF projected it will grow 16 percent this year and 18.6 percent next year — meaning it won’t run into the kinds of budget shortfalls or construction delays that have hampered other bidders.
Qatar has promising to spend $42.9 billion on infrastructure upgrades and $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. All those stadiums, Qatar says, will have a state-of-the art cooling system that will keep temperatures about 27 degrees C (81 degrees F). Similar cooling systems will be used at training sites and even fan zones.
It also made a strong argument for the legacy of the tournament, since it would be the first time the event is held in the Middle East. Blatter seemed to be taken by that when he visited Doha earlier this year, saying the region deserved to host a tournament.
The region has the demographics that any sports federation covets: nearly half the population of the Gulf is under 30 years old. Qatar also brings a powerful media ally as the patron of the Al-Jazeera network, which reaches nearly the entire Arabic-speaking world.
Like the rest of the Gulf, Qatar has used its wealth to buy a place on the world stage with first-class airlines and Mideast annexes of top Western museums and universities. But while neighbors have been content with Formula 1 or big name golf and tennis, Qatar also has aimed higher than others. It bid for the 2016 Olympics and quickly dusted itself off after losing to throw all its formidable resources at the World Cup.
Still, the idea of a 2022 World Cup in Doha remains controversial and the vote has done to little sway doubters.
Critics remain unconvinced that Qatar’s unproven cooling technology will protect their teams and fans from the heat and that organizers can keep fans entertained for the three weeks. Drinking, for now, is limited to five-star hotels and there is little to do beyond desert safaris, shopping trips to the malls and a visit to an Islamic art museum.
And while the country is among the safest in the Gulf, Qatar still sits in a tense region — just across the Gulf from Iran — and no one can predict the state of the Middle East 12 years from now.
Qatar has long said security fears are overblown and that staging the tournament in the country will help the region by changing misperceptions about the Middle East and Islam — just as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa showed that Africa was more than civil wars and famine.
As for its small size, Qatar contends the country will be a very different place in 12 years with entire cities emerging from the desert and scores of new museums and other cultural centers scheduled to be built. It also plans to boost rail and other transport links, making it easier to reach neighboring countries like Bahrain.