Wheels Down in Qatar

FireworksKin Cheung/Associated Press A display of fireworks during the opening ceremony for the Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar, on Friday.
DOHA, Qatar — Soccer is the biggest sport in Asia and the Asian Football Confederation represents more than half the world’s population. The Asian Cup is the confederation’s biggest event, held once every four years. It began Friday; in four years, it will be held in Australia.
Upon arrival from the United States on Thursday, it quickly became a gathering of old friends and colleagues who know the importance of the tournament for Asia, if not around the world. In fact the first words exchanged among reporters seemed to be the same: “Qatar?! Can you believe FIFA!”
FIFA’s decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup is still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the appearance of the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, at the opening ceremony signaled a shift in importance from previous tournaments. At the 2006 Asian Games held in Qatar, the news was about political leaders attending and grandstanding.

The emir of f Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, arriving at Friday’s opening ceremony.Saurabh Das/Associated Press The emir of f Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, arriving at Friday’s opening ceremony.
This week (and until the final on Jan. 29), it will be about soccer, the tournament and, for many, a preview of the FIFA World Cup 2022, albeit with still 11 years until that event. And a lot can happen in 11 years.
On Saturday, China defeated a favored Kuwait, 2-0. China’s team was younger and bigger than Kuwait. It is coached by the former Chinese striker Gao Hongbo and he is the youngest person to coach a national team. In comparison, Kuwait is coached by the Serb Goran Tufegdzic, who is also a former player. On Friday, Uzbekistan opened the tournament with a 2-0 triumph over the hosts. Qatar is coached by the peripatetic Frenchman Bruno Metsu, who was clearly disappointed by the loss. For all the petro dollars spent buying foreign players like Brazil-born No. 11 Fabio Cesar, the Qataris could not withstand the superior, Soviet-style Uzbeks, who seemed to win nearly every 50-50 ball. Among the four teams in Group A, China bears watching, now and in the coming years. With its growing economic power, the world has been waiting for soccer in China to mature and challenge nations from Europe and South America.
Promoters of the tournament hope for a good showing, especially at the gate, after Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup last month.Kin Cheung/Associated Press Promoters of the tournament hope for a good showing, especially at the gate, after Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup last month.
The losses by Qatar and Kuwait puts more pressure on the other teams from the Persian Gulf region, who were hoping to show the world that they have made progress. The strongest team in the region remains Iran, with its American/Iranian expat Coach Afshin Ghotbi. Its first-round opponents include Iraq, the defending champion, the United Arab Emirates and North Korea, which is coming off participation in last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.
In and around Al-Khalifa Stadium on Friday and Al-Gharafa Stadium on Saturday, the fans appeared to be energized while officials were left to scramble and try to cope with a large contingent of international news media that has descended on this country of 1.7 million people. On Friday, the stands were only two-thirds full (the official in-stadium announcement at the start of the second half said that 34,000 were in the 40,000-seat stadium) for the opening ceremonies and start of the match.
But after Uzbekistan scored its second goal, they made a hasty retreat for the exits. That is what happens when the local team has failed to entertain and win. On Saturday, the stands were far from full with about 7,500 in a stadium built for 22,000. It is a point that is certain to be emphasized by news media representatives from Europe, looking ahead to the 2022 World Cup.

The opening ceremony were rather elaborate, featuring fireworks in a display that might be common in the United States, but is quite unusual and dramatic for this region. It was a big deal and the fans loved it!
Outside the press area on Thursday, friends from Europe laughed when told that daily reports were being sent to the United States. “Why? Who cares and who can watch? We thought this was only interesting to Asian expat who don’t speak English!” So a reporter proudly corrected them. “As a matter of fact, all the games are being offered live and in high-definition on cable TV, satellite, broadband and mobile phones. And in English!” It is truly the world’s game.
Behrooz Afrakhan, a native of Tehran who now lives in Los Angeles, has produced many major international soccer telecasts. He will be filing reports to the Goal blog from the Asian Cup in Qatar.