November 18, 2020

COVID Vaccine Results are Big News for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup

The recent announcements by American pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer, with German partners BioNTech, that their COVID-19 vaccines are effective to 95% and 90%, respectively, is undoubtedly the most positive news of the year. The vaccines require additional trials and safety approvals, but the news has been a shot of hope in the arm for the economy and the world in general. The latest vaccine news saw global stocks rise, with businesses and society rejoicing in a newfound optimism in what has been a long year for everyone. Not in the least bit surprising considering the COVID pandemic has had a relatively brutal impact on humanity this year. So far, it has caused 1.27 million deaths, put untold companies out of businesses and people out of jobs. The ramifications of which will continue to be felt for some time to come yet. 

This new level of hope has also struck a chord with the football world. The industry has similarly had a fairly tough year contending with the effects of the virus. Aside from the obvious impact of coronavirus on the health of players, managers, staff and fans, and disruption to the domestic and international calendars, the football economy has also felt the weight of the pandemic. Without any pitch action for months and without fans and media in stadiums, which forms a significant chunk of industry revenue, clubs and associations struggled to pay wages, rents and other outgoings. Though games and tournaments have tentatively been played since the summer with, for premier clubs and competitions, all-important media coverage, the continued lack of ticket holders in the stands, especially for clubs in the smaller leagues, will leave some struggling to survive. To say nothing of the lack of atmosphere...

A potential vaccine on the horizon would help the football industry back on its feet and not too soon either. If the current state of play continues, the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, though two years away, could also face numerous challenges.

COVID-19 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar has been adamant that, despite the obvious difficulties the situation presented, the timelines and goals set for progress towards the World Cup tournament in 2022 would be met. With 85% of tournament preparations already completed before COVID-19 hit, it is no surprise the event's organisers were quietly confident. And, though work on the ground has slowed ensuring workforce and general populous safety, milestones have continued to be met. Stadiums and major transport networks and infrastructure projects have been completed or are nearing completion, and work continues on a host of new hotels, leisure and recreation facilities, and the ambitious futuristic city of Lusail.

However, regardless of whether Qatar has the infrastructure in place or not, the continuation of the pandemic throws up all sorts of other issues. Will the tournament be affordable to fans after such economically uncertain times? Will it be safe to travel, to stay in hotels and explore the country's sights? Will it be safe to attend matches, and will stadiums be open to spectators? Fortunately, Qatar has thought ahead and considered all of the above eventualities. They have been working hard over the last year to mitigate as many of the issues coronavirus has the potential to pose as possible. 

From the moment Qatar entered its bid to host the World Cup, it has promised an affordable tournament. And, in light of the COVID situation, the country is even more determined to enable all fans to have the option of travelling to Qatar to support their teams. To that end, organisers have promised to work with the industry, service providers and supply chains to ensure that the World Cup in 2022 will be affordable in terms of the things that they can control, i.e. flights, accommodation and internal travel. 

Looking forward to getting fans to and from Qatar safely during the World Cup, strict safety and hygiene protocols have been implemented for both airlines and at the country's Hamad International Airport. However, going a step further, numerous innovations have been introduced, and more are being researched to ensure safe travel can be achieved. Qatar Airways, the country's national carrier, has invested in ultraviolet cabin cleaning technology - a portable ultraviolet-c light system capable of reducing certain viruses and bacteria found on surfaces. Similar cleaning technology, in the form of fully autonomous disinfectant robots, can be found in the airport's terminals. Contactless technology has been implemented to decrease the necessity for contact, and so contamination, at major touchpoints across the airport. The technology includes biometric facial recognition (which allows customers to proceed through the airport using their face as their passport and boarding pass with no paper checks required); 'happy hover' touchless technology (which allows customers to use a check-in or baggage drop screen by simply hovering their hand over the options provided); and, SITA mobile solution technology (which enables passengers to use their mobile phones to control check-in kiosk screens ). In addition, Qatar Airways are looking at the possibility of using pre-flight rapid COVID-19 testing for all passengers. And, most recently, testing kits for 'immunity passports' are being researched to add another layer of safety for travellers.

Once in Qatar, fans can be assured of many other safety standards. The Qatar Clean Programme, launched in July of this year, defines the criteria for sterilisation and disinfection in hotels and restaurants and other tourist and services facilities to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The standards reflect the Ministry of Public Health guidelines and allow for regular official inspections. Hotels, restaurants and other facilities that comply with all of the requirements will be certified 'Qatar Clean'. The certification, it is hoped, will help to assure the public that they can provide a safe experience for guests.

Even in stadiums, despite the lockdown, the country completed its domestic leagues and played host to the AFC Champions League (west region), the first continental tournament held since the COVID-19 pandemic began. For the West Zone tournament, Qatari authorities worked closely with the AFC to set up a robust bubble-to-bubble bio framework and numerous processes and protocols to detect and protect against the virus and its transmission. The tournament was a resounding success. So much so that Qatar will now host the east region competition and the Final before the year is out. The only thing missing from the event was the fans…

Potential Issues

Despite the successes Qatar has worked hard to achieve during the pandemic, if the virus is not brought under control, several issues could still cause concern for the tournament, namely a lack of spectators in stadiums and, of course, completing the qualifiers in time.

While work is ongoing to ensure matches can continue and procedures and technologies developed to start allowing fans to return to the stands in limited numbers, for the World Cup, a tournament without fans or even a limited number of fans is generally considered unthinkable. It is the atmosphere that the fans in the stands create for the players, for themselves and for millions of TV viewers that makes the World Cup such a big spectacle. Besides, and of equal importance, without bums on stadium seats and visitors lodging and exploring Qatar outside of the matches, the business side of the game would also suffer.

But, before fans even reach stadiums, the question of whether the qualifiers will be finished in time is also being hotly debated. This year's worldwide spread of COVID-19 resulted in a plethora of games and competitions at local, national and international levels being postponed, which has caused a concertina effect in the football calendar for the next year and a half at least. The qualifiers for 2022 were and still are severely affected, the majority being pushed to start in 2021 rather than 2020. If the virus continues unchecked, the qualifying games may come under increased pressure as the football world is forced to cancel and reschedule matches. As it is, the international play-offs resulting from the qualifiers have been pushed to June '22, which is already a short stone's throw from the start of the World Cup in November '22. 

So, the news of potential vaccines on the not too distant horizon is exceptionally welcome news for anyone involved in the up and coming tournament. A vaccine, when it is rolled out, would offer protection to players, coaches, managers and staff, allow safe travel to matches, ensure games could be played out in good time, and finally see spectators back in the stands. In truth, a lot is riding on the outcome of these vaccinations...

Whatever the outcome, Qatar is a tenacious nation and will no doubt already be working on solutions to any obstacles in the way of a successful tournament. And, alongside FIFA, who have already mooted several options for ensuring qualifiers are completed in time, Qatar is confident that it will achieve the amazing spectacle it set out to nearly 12 years ago.

Published: November 18, 2020
Last updated: November 18, 2020
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