DOHA, Qatar | Qatar has embarked on a campaign to silence critics who claim the tiny desert nation is too hot to host the 2022 World Cup, relying on an expensive effort that supporters say could one day expand the reach of the soccer's premier event into other arid regions.
Dismissing calls to shift the tournament to the cooler winter months or resort to artificial turf, closed roofs, or matches broken into three 30-minute periods, organizers are betting innovative stadium designs and cutting-edge cooling systems powered by alternative energy can keep players and fans comfortable in a country where summertime temperatures often soar above 110 degrees.
Efforts to convince skeptics started several months before the oil- and gas-rich nation stunned the soccer world by winning the right to host the World Cup.
Fearing its bid could be torpedoed by the blistering heat that would greet FIFA officials on an inspection tour, Qatar knew it needed to do something dramatic. The heat issue already was being used against it in a contest against fellow bidders United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan.
Organizers turned to the global consultancy Arup Associates and gave it a simple directive: come up with a design that will keep a soccer stadium cool and protect the planet. Arup delivered a 500-seat stadium with a solar-powered cooling system that keeps temperatures below 75 degrees. The $25 million price tag was nearly as much as some countries spent on their entire World Cup bids.
The five-aside pitch on the edge of Doha did its job last September and FIFA for the first time began seriously considering the possibility of a desert World Cup in 2022.
"What we saw was very impressive," Harold Mayne-Nicholls, who led the FIFA inspection team, told The Associated Press. "It is just a prototype on a very small space so it is not possible to say if it will work or not. But what we saw was first-class ... and when we saw the real effect of it, we all thought it may work and bring a revolutionary technology to sports."
The air-conditioned stadium may have helped Qatar win the 2022 World Cup bid, but it failed to eliminate concerns about summer temperatures that can top 113 degrees.
FIFA's own evaluation report concluded the operational risk of team facilities as "high" and said the heat in July and August "has to be considered as a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators." Even if the stadiums and fan zones are cooled, critics complain the brutal heat will sap the life out of what's intended to be a festive occasion by forcing spectators to spend much of their time indoors.
Current and former players also questioned the wisdom of playing in such heat, with FIFA executive committee member Franz Beckenbauer and UEFA President Michel Platini calling for the tournament to be moved to the cooler, winter months. FIFA President Sepp Blatter angered European clubs by encouraging discussion of a move, but said it's for Qatar to request new dates for the tournament.
"I can understand Qatar wants to prove to the world something, that it's capable of doing it in the summer," said Tijs Tummers, a spokesman for FIFPro, a Netherlands-based organization that represents 50,000 professional players worldwide and has campaigned against the summer tournament.
"But it has to think about the players' safety. It says that it will do that. But it also has to think about the supporters, about the party, about the feast," he continued. "They have to think about the ecology. That makes it logical to change the tournament to winter."
Qatar points out that it was the only bidder to address heat concerns and that past World Cups, such as the 1994 tournament in the U.S., faced similar problems.
"There has been plenty of noise made about Qatar's heat despite the fact that we thoroughly addressed this issue throughout the bidding process," said Nasser al-Khater, the communication director for Qatar 2022. "Qatar isn't the only country that experiences hot summers. The temperatures in the U.S. this summer and during many of the games in the 1994 World Cup were far in excess FIFA's (89.6 degree) advisory limit."
Qatar has hired some of the world's top architects to design 12 open-air, natural-grass stadiums that will be kept below 81 degrees by pumping cool air through vents located below seats and throughout the open-air venues. The temperatures will be well below the 86-degree mark at which FIFA's medical committee advises that players become fatigued after 51 minutes of play.
As part of its $42.9 billion World Cup development plan, the country also will build an air-conditioned metro system to whisk fans to the stadiums. Fan zones and training sites have yet to be designed, but authorities have promised they will be cooled, outdoor spaces with some degree of shading -- discounting suggestions to put training sites underground or fan zones indoors.
Keeping the World Cup cool will require a mammoth amount of energy, opening Qatar to the same criticism faced by many Gulf countries these days -- that the region's proliferation of air-conditioned skyscrapers and malls is a burden on the planet.
Mindful of the environmental concerns, Qatar has promised to make its tournament the first carbon-neutral World Cup. That means creating an electrical grid powered by renewable energy.
Bid officials are confident they can overcome the hurdles that have long hampered solar development in the region: dust storms that degrade solar panels and the high cost that has made fossil fuels much more attractive.
Already, Doha-based GreenGulf Inc. has signed a four-year, $20 million deal with Chevron to identify the most appropriate solar technologies for the region with an eye on using them at the 2022 World Cup. The company has one commercial site running and is building a 430,560 square-foot testing facility.
"It's entirely scalable. It really is," Mike Beaven, a principal with Arup, said of using solar for the 2022 World Cup. "At a big stadium, you have several air-handling units. You have a solar collector farm and you plug it in exactly the same way. It's very straightforward."
Beaven said the focus in the coming years will be on making the 2022 World Cup cooling system as cost-effective and efficient as possible.
Engineering firms previously had given little thought to keeping stadiums cool, with the focus in places such as Boston or Berlin on keeping venues warm. But since Qatar won the 2022 World Cup, the industry is intensifying its efforts to find a game-changer in the way stadiums are cooled.
There was no better place to see this than at a stadium conference in Doha several months ago. Talk of security and logistics was largely overshadowed by the heat issue, and the engineers and architects in attendance all seemed to have a solution.
The ideas ranged from the far-fetched -- one Qatari engineer designed a spaceship-like cloud to block the sun -- to the practical.
Among the latter, the German firm Rehau promoted a system of underground piping that it built to warm 180 pitches worldwide that it says could be converted to cool fields in Qatar.
Birdair Inc., based in Buffalo, N.Y., attracted a crowd with a material called aerogel that it uses in its roofing system. Developed by NASA and used on the Mars Rover to insulate key electrical components, aerogel soaks up heat or cold when used on stadiums. A roofing system that sandwiches aerogel between layers of fiberglass is being used on three buildings in the U.S. and Canada.
"Qatar is a bigger challenge because of the heat," said Martin Augustyniak, director of engineering for Birdair, which is advising several 2022 World Cup architectural firms.
"Obviously, the players will suffer if they don't do anything to cool a stadium with this intense heat," he said. "We have been developing insulated materials that can reduce solar gain and contribute to helping cool the field so they can put these games on in Qatar."
The stadium designs also will play a role in minimizing the need for air conditioning. The proposals have until now grabbed plenty of attention for their futuristic designs, some inspired by Arab culture. But bid architects such as Populous and RFA Fenwick Iribarren Architects also are studying such things as the size of roof openings and the angle of shading. These factors will ensure the right mix of warm and cool air and prevent cooled air from disappearing with the first gust of wind.
"The designs of the stadiums in Doha are not just about blowing cold air in," said Mark Fenwick, the director and partner with Fenwick. The firm is designing Education City, expected to be the first stadium completed as soon as 2014.
"You have to look at the whole scope of the stadium and one of the most important issues is the design of the roof," he said. "You can't have a closed roof, so a single gust of air would take away three hours of cool air production. So the issue is not to get wind coming into the stadium itself. It is also how you distribute the air around the bowl and across the pitch."
Dan Meis, a senior principal at California-based Populous, said its design for Sports City incorporates a large fabric-and-steel canopy that shelters not only the stadium seating, but also much of the surrounding plazas and retail/entertainment areas.
Qatar 2022 technical director Yasir al-Jamal believes the system that cools its World Cup could be one of the tournament's greatest legacies, saying the nation plans to share the lessons it learns and technologies it develops with "countries that experience similar climate-related challenges."
Mayne-Nicholls, the chief of FIFA's inspection team, agreed, saying Qatar's success could help spread soccer to regions that have been off limits due to harsh conditions.
"Of course, it will change a lot of things," he said. "In my country Chile during certain parts of the year, you can't play football games at noon because (of the heat). With this cooling system the way they are planning it, it will open a big window to holding more games all over the world."