The Business of the FIFA World Cup (Part II): The World Witnesses Qatar’s Efforts to Balance Culture and Identity

Authors : Dr. Christos Anagnostopoulos and Dr. Mahfoud Amara*

The hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022 has certainly been a monumental achievement by the State of Qatar. Not only has it brought the country more international exposure and helped it reap the potential economic benefits, but it offered the world a window onto Qatar’s identity, culture, and heritage. Like other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar has and continues to undergo rapid change, which is reflected in its urban development, demographic trends, levels of education, and generally the visible effect of globalization on the local culture.

Expressions of cultural diversity

The Qatari state, like other Arab and Muslim countries, is working toward striking the right balance between integrating the conditions of modernization while preserving local authentic culture. This demands, on the one hand, being open to liberalization and the global means of consumption and communication, while maintaining social cohesion and traditional values, on the other. Changes in Qatar’s urban landscape and planning are a testimony to the perceived duality between tradition and modernity.

One could argue that the sporting context offers more opportunities to reconcile unity and diversity. This is symbolized by the national football team, made up of Qataris and naturalized players, who are the product and legacy of the Qatari national strategy for sports development, which has included the establishment of the internationally recognized national sports academy, Aspire Academy. The success of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial national team in the 2019 Asian Football Cup of Nations, in a time of adversity (and external threat), came at the right moment to strengthen the importance of cultural diversity and the contribution of both citizens and residents in the developmental project of Qatar and its resilience as a nation. 

Indeed, sport as a form of cultural and artistic expression is at the core of Qatar’s cultural project and diplomacy. Two important spaces to display Qatari culture are the stadium architecture and the official logo.

Powerful and physical symbols

Logos, whether for corporate organizations, institutions, sporting clubs, or sports events, are not developed in a vacuum. They usually give an identity to the logo holders by symbolizing their mission and values. When logos are developed, great care is taken to ensure they reflect the culture, tradition, and values associated with the sports tournament. In this sense, logos are brands that become easily recognizable and reflect the identity of those associated with them. In this sense, logos, like national flags, become a vehicle of “inclusion” reflecting the emotional attachment to a particular notion of togetherness and belonging. The logo for Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022 is no different. It was cautiously designed and crafted to make sure it reflected the Qatari culture and its launch was carefully choreographed to mark its symbolism.

On September 3, 2019, the long-awaited logo of the 2022 FIFA World Cup was launched. At 20:22 or 08:22 PM local time, (17:22 GMT), the most iconic and historical buildings in Qatar were covered with this logo. At the same time, the logo was unveiled in at least 24 cities around the world, such as London, Seoul, Mexico City, and Johannesburg, to name just a few. The date, September 3, represents the day Qatar formally achieved its independence from Britain. This was yet another opportunity for Qatar to show the world that, less than five decades after becoming an independent state, it has become the focus of the world’s attention.

Whilst featuring elements of local Arab culture, its football references have an international dimension, connecting the whole world. The logo preserves the iconic shape of the FIFA World Cup trophy. Its swooping curves represent the waves of the desert dunes, which is one of the first things associated with the Arabian Peninsula. The emblem’s form is inspired by the woolen shawl traditionally worn during the winter months. The reference to winter was inspired by the fact that Qatar is hosting the first-ever winter World Cup. The typography shows Arabic inscriptions coalescing tradition and modernity.

The logo is not the only medium by which Qataris have displayed their cultural heritage. The eight World Cup stadiums are another tool.

They were either built specifically for the event or have undergone extensive refurbishment (e.g., Khalifa International Stadium). Designed by some of the best architects in the world, such as the celebrated late Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, these venues are destined to leave a long-lasting impression. Beyond the design and the incorporated technology, the stadiums have been made to reflect the local identity and culture as well as Qatar’s ambition as a nation.

The story told by the stadiums

Four exemplary cases are worth mentioning. The architecture of the first stadium, Al Thumama, is another representation of the region’s history, culture, and identity. The stadium is built in the shape of a gahfiya: a traditional knitted white cap worn by males across the Arab Peninsula but also throughout the Muslim world.

The second, Al Janoub Stadium, is another monument that bridges Qatar’s history and its future aspirations. Designed by Zaha Hadid, it is shaped like the traditional dhow boats, which have, until very recently, been the cornerstone of the region’s economy: fishing and pearl diving. Not only does the dhow boat represent the past, but it also represents Qatar’s motivation and ambition to reach beyond its shores. The third of the stadiums is Al Bayt, inspired by the bayt al sha’ar (house of hair or lint), used by nomadic Bedouin people in the desert and which reflects Qatari hospitality. Keeping with the spirit of the Bedouin traditions, the arena will, like a nomad’s tent, “move” – with parts of it reconfigured – after the tournament. The fourth is the purpose-built 974 Stadium. Constructed from modular building blocks including shipping containers on the shore of the Gulf in the Corniche area, the 40,000-capacity venue will go down in FIFA World Cup™ history as the first fully dismountable and reusable tournament venue.

Striking a balance

As visitors, and those who followed the tournament from afar, were introduced to Qatari culture, they also witnessed what can be termed “a balancing act” between tradition and modernity.

*Dr. Mahfoud Amara, a contributing author to the book, is Associate Professor in Sport Social Sciences and Management at the College of Education, Qatar University. Dr. Amara has a specific interest in sport business, culture, and politics in Arab and Muslim contexts.

Dr. Christos Anagnostopoulos
Dr. Christos Anagnostopoulos
Dr. Christos Anagnostopoulos is Assistant Professor in Sport Management at the College of Science and Engineering, at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), Qatar, and the UNESCO Co-Chair holder and Director of the Chair on Governance & Social Responsibility in Sport at UCLan, Cyprus.