CNN Photos

Soccer-crazy Qatar ramping up for World Cup

Many were surprised when tiny Qatar, a Middle East nation with a population of less than 2 million, was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

No Arab country has ever hosted the international soccer tournament, and Qatar seemed like an unlikely candidate to be the first: A minnow in the footballing world, its national team has never even qualified for the event.

But in the end, the emirate’s ambitious bid beat out several sporting behemoths, including Australia and the United States.

Now the challenge is to get ready. And Qatar is racing to develop both its infrastructure and its national team.

 “Because of the World Cup, people are starting to get more involved,” French-based photographer Isabelle Eshraghi said. “They are promoting sport and especially football inside the country.”

Eshraghi said Qatar has changed dramatically since 2004 when she first visited.

“At that time, Qatar was very empty,” she said. “And last year, when I came back for this football story, I couldn’t recognize anything.”

The economy is booming in Qatar, which started exporting liquefied natural gas in 1997, and development has been rapid. Sand is being replaced by streets. Camels are making way for cars, and there are plenty of green soccer fields, too.

The Aspire Academy in Doha is said to be the largest indoor sports facility in the world, with training programs for children as young as 6.

“They’re really looking for their home talent,” Eshraghi said. “The population in Qatar is very little, and they really are trying to get the best players for the national team.”

 Since Qatar was awarded the World Cup two years ago, there has been no shortage of controversy.

The primary concern has been the country’s extreme heat. In the summer, when the World Cup is played, temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

Qatar has promised to spend billions on innovative air-conditioned stadiums, but FIFA is now considering plans to move the tournament to the winter.

"The World Cup must be a festival of the people. But for it to be such a festival, you can't play football in the summer," FIFA President Sepp Blatter said this month. "You can cool down the stadiums, but you can't cool down the whole country, and you can't simply cool down the ambience of a World Cup.”

There has also been criticism from human rights activists, who say migrant construction workers - the ones who will be building the country’s new stadiums - have been exploited over the years, working long hours in the heat for little or no pay.

Qatari officials say improving workers’ conditions is of “paramount importance,” however, and that the World Cup will be a catalyst for change.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Qatar, and the country’s wealth has reached into some of the world’s biggest clubs.

The Qatar Investment Authority bought a majority of French team Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, and the influx of cash helped it win its domestic championship and become a force in Europe. The Qatar Foundation sponsors the shirt of superpower FC Barcelona, and a member of the Qatari royal family bought Spanish club Malaga in 2010.

But it’s not just about soccer in Qatar. Sports, in general, are so important that there’s even a national holiday set aside to celebrate.

As of 2012, the second Tuesday of every February is National Sports Day.

“Nobody works, and they have to enjoy (sports) during this day,” Eshraghi said. “I don’t know about you, but we don’t have that in France.”

 - Kyle Almond, CNN