Philip Barker

Qatar Stars League champions Al Sadd made a winning start to the FIFA Club World Cup against Oceania champions Hienghene of New Caledonia this week, but many will feel another a more significant Qatari victory might well be achieved over the next seven days.

The Club World Cup has yet to command the spotlight in quite the same way as the UEFA Champions League or the Copa Libertadores, but this year will be scrutinised as never before, simply because it is being played in Qatar, the FIFA World Cup host nation in under three years from now.

It's the first time this club competition has taken place in Qatar, but the dream of hosting major international football was first nurtured almost a quarter of a century ago, when the 1995 FIFA World Youth Championships were held in Doha.

"It gave a first taste of Qatar's exceptional ability to organise a brilliant event," FIFA observers said.

Incredibly, they only took over the organisation a month before the event.

Nigeria had been originally been selected as host nation, but all was not well.

At one stage, FIFA's executive committee was apparently told, "It would take the eighth wonder of the world" for everything to be ready on time, despite a reputed cash injection of $50 million.

Even so, FIFA's official magazine, published in December 1994, still carried the headline: "Back to Africa".

There was also an optimistic editorial from general-secretary Sepp Blatter which asked: "How many of the youngsters in action in Nigeria will make it to their country’s senior team in France 1998?"

Yet in early 1995 there came further problems. Health concerns were said to include an outbreak of meningitis.

FIFA despatched a team of experts to the country at the beginning of March. After their inspection they recommended the tournament be cancelled.

Joao Havelange, right, was right there at the beginning of Qatar's journey to the heart of football ©Getty Images
Joao Havelange, right, was right there at the beginning of Qatar's journey to the heart of football ©Getty Images

A Nigerian delegation met other representatives of the African Football Confederation (CAF) and called for a boycott. CAF was sympathetic, but stopped short of such an action.

Nigeria were invited to participate in a rearranged tournament but did not respond, so the African continent was represented by Burundi and Cameroon.

In the meantime, Qatar had agreed to take on the hosting, though the start date of the tournament was pushed back a month.

Two years before, they had served as neutral hosts for the Asian qualification tournament for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but that was only for six teams.

The World Youth Championships was a much more significant undertaking with 16 teams.

Arrangements were made for matches spread across three grounds in Doha City itself.

FIFA President Joao Havelange was delighted.

"Seldom, if ever in the history of FIFA, has a national association come so willingly and so dramatically to the rescue of one of our major competitions as the Qatar Football Association. At little more than a moment's notice, Qatar succeeded in putting at FIFA's disposal facilities of the highest quality, as well as agreeing to take over the responsibility of organising one of the world's most important football events."

The Emir decided that there should be free entrance to the matches, a decision vindicated by official attendance figures of 455,000, a substantial increase on the preceding tournament.

Qatar played the opening match against Russia. Mohammed el Enazi scored a spectacular goal in a 1-1 draw.

"In the short time that had been available to him, the Qataris' Danish coach Jörgen Larsen had managed to assemble a sound team, and they put on a brave display," said the technical coaches watching the tournament.

Unfortunately for home supporters, there was to be no repetition of the heroics of 1981 when the Qataris astounded the world by reaching the final.

The class of '95 lost to Syria in their second match and another defeat against Brazil made sure they were eliminated.

"Most of my players have come straight into the tournament from their college examinations, so I think they did very well," said Larsen.

Spain set Group B alight, scoring 13 goals in their three matches against Burundi, Japan and Chile.

Three of those were scored by Raul, soon to become a revered figure, even amongst the fabled Real Madrid "Galacticos".

In the final years of his career, Raul even returned to play in Qatar.

Portugal qualified from Group C along with Argentina, but the most curious episode came in a match which otherwise had little bearing on the tournament.

Honduras faced The Netherlands, but the FIFA report described their performance as "over-motivated efforts which led them into fiasco. A negative highlight without parallel in FIFA history".

The Dutch were four up by halftime, but four Hondurans were sent off by referee Masayoshi Okada. They had already used up their quota of substitutes when a further player was injured.

As Honduras had fewer than seven on the field, the match was abandoned after 80 minutes. The Netherlands were 7-1 up at the time and awarded the points.

Before his team returned home, Honduran coach Luis Paz Camargo apologised "to FIFA, to the organisers and the spectators for the hot-headed behaviour by some of our players. We've learnt from our mistakes".  

Cameroon topped Group C and four goals from Mark Viduka made sure Australia accompanied them to the quarter-finals.

Australia eventually lost to Portugal by an extra-time golden goal.

Spain, Argentina and Brazil also went through to the last four, which was a classic Europe-South America confrontation.

The semi-finals saw the South Americans prevail. Argentina beat Spain 3-0 and Brazil needed a late winner from Caio to overcome Portugal.

In the final, Argentina led midway through the first half through Leonardo Biagini following a clever interchange of passes.

Two minutes from the end, substitute Francisco Guerrero made sure of victory "with a clever lob’" over the advancing keeper.

"Today we challenged a giant and won," said Argentina head coach Jose Pekerman.

Khalifa Stadium will host the FIFA Club World Cup final ©Getty Images
Khalifa Stadium will host the FIFA Club World Cup final ©Getty Images

"The Boys Grow Up" was the headline in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa.Their report compared the team to Argentina's victory in 1979 when Diego Maradona had been the star.

There was only one potential blot on the horizon.

"A different kind of problem came to light for the first time that FIFA is aware, that of corruption and the manipulation of matches," said the official report.

FIFA's deputy general-secretary Michael Zen Ruffinen reported on activities by a group said to have connections to betting syndicates in the Far East.

A group of five, said also to include prostitutes, was deported by the Qatari authorities.

Meanwhile, FIFA were fulsome in their praise for Qatar and spoke of "exceptional infrastructure". They also described "Qatar as a very serious and capable candidate", and commended the medical facilities on offer at the venues.

"Doha really rolled out the red carpet in a way that few other organisers could have managed. It was close to being a miracle."

Havelange told them "it emphasised that country's love of our sport and its ambition to play a central role in the game's development".

It was the first step on the road that would lead to their election as FIFA World Cup hosts for 2022.

The Qataris were even told that the Khalifa stadium was '"worthy of staging a World Cup".

"For the final, the conditions were excellent, just as they had been on the first day. Part of this is due to natural meteorological conditions and part to the unceasing efforts of the ground staff."

The same stadium will also be pressed into service next week to stage semi-finals and final of the FIFA Club World Cup, because the intended venue at Education City has not been signed off by the authorities.

"Construction is now complete and the stadium is operational, but the necessary certification process took longer than expected," organisers said.