When the plans for the second Under 23 Gulf Cup were first discussed, many of the teams were apprehensive about playing in July and August, the cruellest months for the oppressive heat in the Middle East. But their fears were assuaged by the magnificent indoor, air-conditioned facilities of the 5,500-seat Aspire Academy in Doha. After 10 days of the first major tournament to be held indoors in the country, visiting players and officials were left impressed.
Qatar plans to use this dress rehearsal as a template to build other stadiums in a bid to convince Fifa that the country is capable of hosting the biggest tournament of all: the World Cup in 2022. "Aspire is a great place, with great facilities," Abdulredha Ali Mirza, an official of the Kuwait team, said. "The pitch is fantastic and the conditions are really good. "Five years back, we could not have even imagined playing at this time of the year."
The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence sits within a 600-acre sports district called the Aspire Zone, which has hosted events such as the 2006 Asian Games and the 2009 World Indoor Athletics Championships. Many believe the successful hosting of the Gulf Cup should boost Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup. "The indoor facilities at the Aspire Stadium are unique, one of a kind," Rashid al Zaabi, the head of the UAE delegation at the tournament, said.
"I would like to thank Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, the chairman of the Qatar Football Association, for backing and supporting this tournament, which is unique given the time it is being played. "Most of the Gulf States said they would not be able to send their teams under the prevailing hot and humid weather conditions. "But the tournament proved to be a success right from the onset. Our brothers in Qatar have provided all facilities to ensure the success of the competition and made it easy for the AGCC Organising Committee to get the job done."
The positive feedback has pleased the organisers, but they will not be resting on their laurels and will conduct a comprehensive de-brief of the tournament "I believe things have gone to plan and the participating teams have not faced any problems, thanks to the efforts of all members of the organising committee," Hamad Saleh al Manaai, the championship director, said. "This is our first experience of hosting a football tournament indoors and we will be conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the championship for submission to the Football Association.
"We want to build on this positive experience and hosts teams from across the world in the future. "In this tournament, we have managed to gain the admiration of everyone and if we win the right to host the 2022 World Cup, there will be another set of air-conditioned stadiums built, modelled on Aspire." Al Zaabi said the indoor facility was a great advantage for football in the region. "Really, Aspire is a massive project, not just for Qatar but the whole Gulf region." he said. "Now we know it is possible to play in July or August in the Gulf area with this kind of indoor facility.
"It was a good experience for us and it was also a good test for Qatar. "We know we did not have that many audiences coming for the games, but some of the matches did draw good crowds and it was a really good atmosphere. "The low turnout is because of the season; a lot of people are outside the country. Overall, I believe it was a good tournament and a good achievement." The tournament was particularly beneficial for the UAE and Kuwait, aiding their preparation for the Asian Games and then the 2012 Olympic qualifiers.
"Kuwait are a very strong team, with many good players," Ali Mirza said. "This tournament is a great preparation for the Olympics. "From the evidence of our performance here, give this Kuwait team two years and they will be doing really well. "It is really good to have this tournament for the Olympic teams. We had age group tournaments, but no specific tournament for the Olympic team." The U23 Gulf Cup was held for the first time in 2008 in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabia capital, where the home side clinched the title. The purpose of the tournament was to prepare the teams for the Beijing Olympic Games and five nations participated: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
"The UAE were absent from the first tournament, but are making up for lost time with their success this time around," al Zaabi said. "We are happy about the results. The team is doing very well and performing to our expectations. "This tournament is one of our preparations for the Asian Games in November and we are confident of getting good results with this team and the eight players absent through injuries and other commitments.
"Once they return, we will be a really strong unit." email@example.com