Friday, November 25th. Al Thumama Stadium, Qatar. It’s the 78th minute of play. The Qatari national team have just scored a goal, one that, when all is factored in and explained, is the most expensive goal ever scored in a football game. Why? How? Why is it that a single goal, seemingly no different from any other scored at the World Cup, means so much and costs so much? Why did Qatar even want to host the World Cup? How is it that a striker, born nearer to the nation he scored against than the one he scored for, came to play in this game?
Where does Qatar’s money come from?
To understand why Qatar, and so many other nations of the Arabian Gulf, invests so heavily in football, one only needs to look at where the money comes from: oil. Possibly the most lucrative commodity on earth, it has made Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar wealthy beyond belief. However, as prices fall and demand falters in the face of net zero, oil-rich economies must adapt to survive. Luxury tourism and hosting prestigious events are critical parts of this plan.
Qatar and Russia were awarded hosting duties for their respective FIFA World Cups in late 2010. Immediately, the decision was met with controversy and criticism. For one, the implication of playing the summer games in one of the hottest climates in the world filled many with confusion. Secondly, Qatar, until that point and beyond, had no footballing pedigree, none whatsoever.
This is accentuated when one considers the bidding competition. Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are all countries that, unlike Qatar, have qualified for a World Cup before, with Japan, South Korea, and the US having already hosted successful games. Cries of ‘corruption’ went up as Sepp Blatter’s legacy was muddied some more.
When Qatar was awarded hosting rights in 2010, the nation sat at 114th on FIFA’s national team rankings. The onus now was on the Qatari government and football association to create a team worthy of taking to the field. It would need to be from scratch. Qatar set about naturalising foreign-born players who had impressed in the Qatari league system.
Mohammed Muntari was born in Ghana and naturalised as a Qatari citizen in his early 20s. Qatar also naturalised players from Algeria, Sudan, Portugal, and Uruguay (though FIFA intervened when they tried to secure several Brazilian talents). The Aspire Academy was built in 2011 to foster the next generation of Qatari talent, headed by former Barcelona coach Felix Sanchez, who manned every youth position in the national team until taking over the senior squad in 2017.
This approach worked, and Qatar won the under-19 Asian Cup in 2014 and the Asian Cup in 2019 and finished third in the FIFA Arab Cup in 2021. All of this was made possible by the Aspire Academy, constructed in 2004 to curate a generation of athletic talent in Qatar, Europe, and a scouting complex in West Africa. The academy alone was an investment of one billion dollars by the Qatari government.
But this is just a drop in the ocean. When you factor in the construction of stadiums and the adjacent infrastructure, investments into the national team and Aspire Academy, the bidding process, and more, the estimated cost of the 2022 FIFA World Cup reaches 220 billion dollars.
And so, with an unfathomable amount of money spent, a labyrinth of scandals weathered, seven stadiums built from scratch, and the reputation of an entire nation on the line, the eyes of the world fell upon Doha.
Qatar had a dismal start to their World Cup campaign, falling 2-0 to a plucky Ecuador side. The match was mired in controversy from the start, as an early goal by Ecuador was ruled out by a dubious VAR decision that left commentators, pundits, and viewers at home with more questions than answers. Their third game, against group favourites the Netherlands, saw an identical result. But it was in between, against Senegal, that something happened. Something that 12 years and almost an entire oil economy had been poured into: a goal. The goal.
Senegal established a two-goal lead through Boulaye Dia’s low, driven shot in the 40th minute and a bullet header from Famara Diédhiou in the 48th. Thirty minutes of play later, Qatar finally found a breakthrough. Ismaeel Mohammad worked the ball to the by-line, to the right of the Senegal goal, and chipped a ball over the top of the defence and to the penalty spot. Mohammed Muntari, Qatar’s world cup hope, embodied in his number nine jersey, manages to beat three Senegalese defenders to the ball and head into the bottom left corner. It was his 14th goal for his adopted nation; though neither he nor anyone else watching knew it just yet, he had just scored the most expensive goal in the history of football.