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It's the biggest story in soccer: Qatar, a sandy spit of land in the Persian Gulf, has become the epicenter of the world's most popular sport. Last month the tiny, natural-gas-rich emirate (pop. 841,000) won the right to host World Cup 2022, stunning larger rivals including the U.S. and Australia. A few days later powerhouse Barcelona signed a five-year, $200 million jersey sponsorship with the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit funded by the Qatari royal family. Meanwhile a Qatari businessman, Mohamed bin Hammam, is the president of the Asian confederation and the most prominent rival to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who is running for reelection this year.
Qatar's supply of petrodollars has allowed it to spend lavishly on schooling (an Education City featuring branches of six top U.S. universities) and art (the new I.M. Pei--designed Museum of Islamic Art), and soccer is no different. Plans are to spend $54 billion on space-age stadiums and infrastructure for World Cup '22, nearly 12 times what South Africa devoted to the 2010 event.
The audacity of Qatar, however, has raised some questions: Did it simply buy the World Cup in last month's FIFA vote, which was tarnished by the suspension of two voters on corruption charges? Will Qatar's air-conditioned stadiums be enough to combat summer temperatures soaring toward 120º? Or will Blatter, as he recently suggested, hold the tournament in January, a switch that would throw the world's top soccer leagues into disarray? And if the Qatari emir is in charge of World Cup '22, doesn't that contradict FIFA's own rules against governmental involvement? "This is not an event being run by a soccer organization but by a sovereign government," says one FIFA insider. "FIFA has never done this before."
Last week this much became evident: Qatar's team, which has never qualified for the World Cup, has a long way to go if it wants to be competitive in '22, when as host it will receive an automatic bid. In last Friday's opening game of the Asian Cup, the quadrennial continental championship, Qatar played down to its world ranking of 114, losing 2--0 to Uzbekistan. Qatar's dejected fans began leaving the stadium long before the final whistle. "Today was a very, very bad day," said Bruno Metsu, the team's French coach.
Still, Qatari soccer has 11 years to improve before the World Cup, and there's little reason to believe it won't. For starters, it could simply naturalize competitive non-native-born players. Qatar has a rich history of importing top athletes—its two Olympic medals were won by a Somali-born runner and a Bulgarian-born weightlifter—and six of Qatar's soccer starters last week were born in other countries. In 2004 Qatar's royal family began funding the Aspire Academy, an elite facility to train young Qatari athletes, including soccer players.
As if all that weren't enough evidence that Qatar is the fastest-rising country in world soccer, reports recently emerged that a company owned by the Qatari royal family wanted to purchase a new toy: Manchester United.
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Check out Grant Wahl's Planet Fútbol column every week at SI.com/soccer