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Monday, January 24, 2011

Football Focus: Qatar’s trial run for 2022: Lukewarm fans at Asian Cup

Christy Simson, ESPN | Sat, 01/22/2011 1:18 PM | Sports                                                A | A | A |
The standard line from the football journalists in Doha, is that that the Asian Cup has been well organized, but lacking in atmosphere.

In other words Qatar’s compact size makes it easy to get around, the stadiums are shiny and new, and the communications work well. But, and it’s a big but, very few fans are turning up to the games.

Just to give you an idea, barely 2,000 watched one of the favorites Japan against Qatar’s neighbors Saudi Arabia, and very few of those were Qataris.

But the biggest no-show came when the host team played a crucial final group match against Kuwait, their biggest game in years. The Khalifa stadium was only just half-full. The local media had claimed it was a sell-out.

It’s a frightening trend. I traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi and it was the same story.

Lots of empty seats after sell-outs had been promised. But this time it’s football.

This is the people’s game, for crying out loud — the most popular sport in the world. If you can’t fill a stadium when your own team is playing, there is something badly wrong.

But perhaps I should calm down, and listen to FIFA as they inform me that the sharing of the World Cup bounty is more important, and anyway, they will say, the stadiums in 2022 will be swelled by people arriving from all over the World.

OK fine, but aren’t there more deserving countries who love football and have enough fans to fill the seats. How about Central America, South East Asia, or even North Africa

There are facts that can’t be got away from. Doha has a population which varies wildly, depending where you get your information. Wikipaedia says 998,651. Many other websites vary between 350,000 and 450,000.

It’s also worth pointing out that up to 70 percent of that population are foreign workers from India and Pakistan.

That leaves you with very few men between the ages of 8 and 80 with the inclination, cash, or holiday time to watch a game of football.

The other fact is well publicized — Qatar is so hot in the summer (June, July & August) you can barely breathe let alone run around for 90 minutes.

At the moment the tournament is due to be played in that hot period. There has been talk of air-conditioned stadiums, and that, at the moment, is the most likely scenario, because one after the other, European football chiefs are warning FIFA that they will run into trouble if they try and move the tournament forward to the more temperate climes of January and February.

We’ve seen the evidence of those balmy 20-22 degree evenings over the last fortnight. The players have enjoyed it, and the results have been entertaining.

This is one of the most open Asian Cups in years. There’s a changing of the guard. One of the big boys, Saudi Arabia has gone home with its tail between its legs; traditional favorites Japan and South Korea aren’t having it all there own way, while Australia and Uzbekistan are good enough for anyone on their day.

Defending Champions Iraq has been a touch wobbly, while their arch-rivals Iran appear unbeatable.

Catch Christy Simson on ESPN’s SportsCenter every weekday night at 7.30 and 10 p.m. for more updates from the AFC Asian Cup. You can watch the tournament live on STAR Sports and ESPN Player (Quarterfinals Jan. 21-22; Semifinal Jan. 25, Final Jan. 29).