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Soccer notes

A World Cup warm-up

UAE event may give peek at Qatar

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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The World Club Cup, which starts tomorrow in Abu Dhabi, could provide a small preview of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The United Arab Emirates, which borders Qatar to the south, started diversifying and looking West soon after gaining independence in 1971. Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, was described as “one of the most modern cities on earth,’’ in the 1994 Lonely Planet guide. And that provides a model for Doha, Qatar’s capital, though that country began moving in that direction much later than the UAE.

Even so, these are sheikdoms guided by Islamic law and traditions, so tensions are bound to be raised when foreign supporters arrive en masse. The following guidelines have been issued by World Club Cup organizers: “Alcohol and kissing in public are prohibited, and drug use in public or private places will have legal consequences.’’

“We are a Muslim country which has its own traditions and customs and this must not be ignored by foreigners,’’ said organizing committee representative Chaza Roumeiti.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai have developed a way for strict Muslim customs to co-exist with Western customs; for instance, alcohol is widely available in hotels and restaurants. Qatar is making similar concessions and could be a much different place by 2021, when the Confederations Cup is expected to be held there as a preview of the 2022 World Cup.

A key difference between Qatar 2022 and the UAE 2010, though, is the time of year of the tournaments. June and July in Qatar mean sandstorms and 110-degree-plus temperatures. The air-conditioned stadiums should make the climate bearable during matches, but the rest of the day will have to be spent avoiding the elements.

This will be a futuristic, even virtual, World Cup in many ways. And, the specter of corruption and an outdated selection process will hang over it. No doubt, the FIFA executive committee members prefer to avoid media scrutiny, especially the aggressive, tabloid-style tactics of some publications in Britain. The fact two FIFA voting members were caught in a media “sting’’ operation must have soured their colleagues on not only England, but anywhere the media is not closely controlled by authorities.

But, despite its Byzantine structure, FIFA has been forward-looking since the days of Joao Havelange, 94, currently the organization’s honorary president and still considered an influential behind-the-scenes figure. In 1988, Havelange designated the US for the 1994 World Cup, at a time when most sports administrators were skeptical of the proposition. The US went with the first indoor World Cup games, covering the Silverdome floor with pods of grass. There was a slightly surreal atmosphere surrounding those games in Pontiac, Mich., though nothing like it will be for Doha.

Yet, the choices of the US in ’94 and Qatar for 2022 were received with astonishment, though for much different reasons. The US seemed a risky choice because it was so big and appeared disconnected from the sport of soccer. Qatar is too small, meaning the country will simply be transformed into an intimate television stage.

And there isn’t much soccer tradition in Qatar. The 1994 Asian qualifying tournament was held in Doha but Qatar’s national team has not come close to qualifying for the World Cup finals — even nearby Bahrain (pop. 500,000) came within a goal of advancing in a playoff against Trinidad & Tobago in 2006.

But, as in ’94, there is a major financial bonus projected and a soccer frontier to be explored, according to a Grant Thornton study commissioned by Qatar. A $14 billion increase is expected for soccer in the region by 2022, plus another $10 billion in investment in the succeeding 20 years. Middle East soccer attendance could increase by 4 million spectators (13.4 percent) — excluding World Cup matches — in 2022 alone. Another assuring figure for voters was a potential 3.2 billion viewer peak audience on match days, since 82 percent of the world’s population resides in time zones available for prime-time viewing of games from Qatar, according to Grant Thornton.

The World Club Cup is the first money generator on that timetable. But this is an almost contrived tournament, an offshoot of the Intercontinental Cup, which pitted the Europe and South American champions. Now, all confederations are eligible, so the tournament opener will be the UAE’s Al Wahda Sports Club against Hekari United of Papua New Guinea. Al Wahda’s coach is Josef Hickersberger, whose first managing job was with the Austrian national team that eliminated the US in the 1990 World Cup finals. Hickersberger was fired one game later, though, as the Austrians lost to the Faroe Islands in a European Championship qualifier.

Repeat performance Chilean striker Humberto “Chupete’’ Suazo scored two goals as Monterrey defeated Santos, 3-0, Sunday to win the Mexican League Apertura playoffs for the second time in two years. Suazo recently re-signed with Rayados, but is playing well enough to warrant another chance in Europe — he was briefly with Zaragoza last year. But the team’s most interesting prospect could be Hiram Ricardo Miers, a 21-year-old central defender who grew up in the Monterrey system and made his first team debut in August in a 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in a CONCACAF Champions League match.

Santos has experienced major changes since visiting Gillette Stadium for three SuperLiga matches (0-2-1) last year. Among the holdovers are midfielders Daniel Luduena and Juan Pablo Rodriguez, but coach Ruben Omar Romano left both out of the starting lineup; the result was a lack of connection between midfield and speedy forwards Christian Benitez and Darwin Quintero.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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