For a moment at least, the simple tearing open of an envelope on Thursday night made Qatar, with its 11,437 square kilometres of desert, the biggest country in the world.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s announcement that the Gulf state of just 1.6 million people would host football’s World Cup in 2022 was a sensational outcome that few could have foreseen when Qatar’s bid was announced early last year.
It came just a few minutes after Russia – actually the biggest country in the world – was handed sport’s greatest event for 2018.
But that news paled into insignificance when Blatter tugged at the envelope’s contents to reveal the word ‘Qatar’ – and begin a night of celebration in Doha, the Qatari capital.
It’s a good thing that the Qataris are teaming up with German transport experts to build a metro system for 2022 because, given the way Arabs celebrate, no-one will be going anywhere by car.
Within seconds of the victory being announced on Thursday night, Doha’s grand Corniche seafront was clogged with vehicles. Thousands of Land Cruisers, pickup trucks, Corvettes and saloons, with flashing lights, violently gunned engines, and kids hanging out of the sunroof waving maroon-and-white flags.
If Qatar’s football team, now guaranteed a first World Cup appearance, were able to win a match in 2022, the traffic jam could last for days.
Currently ranked 113th in the world, that would be some feat. But Qatar is becoming a specialist at making the impossible happen.
With the considerable benefit of hindsight, Qatar seems like the only choice that Fifa’s 22-strong executive committee could have opted for.
Any of South Korea, Japan, the United States or Australia would have just appeared tepid. All of them were seen as safe options. None of them had the ‘wow’ factor. The Middle East’s first World Cup has exactly that.
As Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, said in the bid’s final presentation in Zurich on Wednesday: “When do you think is the right time for the Middle East to host the World Cup? The time is now.”
Those words ring true. If Qatar was a footballer, you would say it was in a red-hot streak of form.
Huge oil and gas reserves have allowed Qatar to be one of the few nations to be largely unscathed by the global economic downturn. It has thrived while neighbours like the bigger, brasher Dubai have wobbled.
Four years ago, it emerged from sporting obscurity to host the Asian Games. Since then, its ambitions have climbed higher and higher. In January, it hosts the Asian Cup – the continent’s equivalent of the European Championships.
The failed bid for the Olympics in 2016 now matters little. The World Cup is bigger than that. Football has the fans, the prestige, the swagger and the money.
And if not Qatar, who? No other country in the region has the capability. Reject Qatar, and you reject the Middle East, potentially, for generations.
Living here, you get the impression of steady, yet relentless and determined progress. Spend a month abroad, and the skyline seems to have changed when you return.
Very little of what Qatar is promising for 2022 has yet been built. But it will be. Qatar can build, and build quickly.
One vehicle noticeable for its lack of celebration on the Corniche was a busload of South Asian workers. The next 12 years will be the product of their hard graft, with uncertain rewards for themselves.
But one man on Thursday night will be wondering just how much more he can achieve. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has pulled off the equivalent of taking a non-league side up through the divisions to the Champions League Final. If ever he gets bored of ruling, there could be a spot for him as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United.
The eyes of the world are now on Qatar. The scrutiny will be intense. Fifa has made a stunning, and perhaps brave, decision. But as Qatar has already proved, the beauty of crazy ideas is that they might just work.