Good organisation, poor crowds typify Asian Cup

AFP, Thursday 20 Jan 2011

The on-going Asian Cup has put the spotlight on Qatar after its controversial success in winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, but a glaring lack of atmosphere and fans has done it no favours

A man reads during the 2011 Asian Cup Group D soccer match between Iraq and North Korea (Photo: Reuters)

According to documents published by Britain's Daily Telegraph, the energy-rich Gulf state earmarked £27 million ($43 million) for public relations alone in the year running up December's 2022 hosting decision.

This was more than the entire two-year bidding budgets of other competing nations South Korea, Japan and United States. Australia's two-year budget was said to be slightly higher.

The tiny but wealthy country has also thrown plenty of money at the Asian Cup -- the stadiums are shiny and modern, the organisation is excellent, facilities are top-notch and communications work flawlessly.

But the fans have been missing and it is sorely lacking atmosphere.

A criticism of Qatar being awarded the World Cup was its lack of football pedigree and Asia's premier football tournament being played in front of half-empty stadiums.

There were barely 2,000 supporters watching powerhouses Japan and Saudi Arabia, while less than 4,000 witnessed China's thrilling showdown with Uzbekistan and a similar number saw Australia beat Bahrain on Tuesday.

Few of them were Qataris.

More people turned up to watch an English non-league match between Luton and York on the same night that an Australian team boasting players like Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer booking their place in the last eight.

Even more worrisome was the failure of Qatari fans to fill the stadium for the host nation's crucial final group match against Kuwait -- their biggest game in years.

Qatar came through it 3-0 to make the quarter-finals for only the second time in their history, but there were reams of empty seats for a game that was said to have been a sell-out.

It followed thousands of fans streaming out of the hosts' opening game with 30 minutes left, leaving Khalifa Stadium eerily quiet at the final whistle.

Asian Football Confederation competitions director Tokuaki Suzuki put a brave face on the poor turnouts.

"We are satisfied with the crowds in stadiums, not only numbers but the atmosphere," he said.

"Of course, we need to improve. If all matches were a full house, it would be better."

Working in Qatar's favour has been the compact size of the capital Doha, making it easy to get to stadiums despite negligible public transport and few taxis, while there is little crime.

World Cup planners say they will build a new metro system to shuttle fans to games in 2022.

The current tournament has been notable for its smooth organisation, with a leaf clearly being taken out of FIFA's book on how to run a high-profile event.

"Our target is not only an excellent competition in terms of the Asian level, we are looking at the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Champions League and Euro level," Suzuki told reporters.

"We want to do it on the same level as FIFA and UEFA and we believe we can achieve that."

Perhaps the biggest plus point of the Asian Cup has been the weather, with temperatures hovering around the 20-22 Celsius mark, perfect footballing conditions.

It is certain to further stoke debate about whether to host the World Cup in the traditional June-July window, when the mercury can soar to 50 Celsius in Qatar, or shift the tournament to the winter.

FIFA president Sepp Blatler has already made clear that he prefers January, but Asian football chief Mohamed Bin Hammam, himself a Qatari, is adamant it will remain a summer World cup.

"We are not interested -- we are very happy and we are promising the world that we are going to organise an amazing World Cup in June and July," Bin Hammam said this week.

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