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After the final whistle

Concern has been voiced as to what will become of Qatar’s stadiums once the tournament has come and gone. Will they stand empty, white elephants in the desert, testimony to an ill-conceived splurge?

The once iconic ‘Calabash’ stadium, in Johannesburg, built for the FIFA 2010 World Cup, in its former glory. The stadium now stands all but deserted, with grass growing through its once pristine pavements, testimony to a lack of forward planning.
The once iconic ‘Calabash’ stadium, in Johannesburg, built for the FIFA 2010 World Cup, in its former glory. The stadium now stands all but deserted, with grass growing through its once pristine pavements, testimony to a lack of forward planning.

Concern has been voiced as to what will become of Qatar’s stadiums once the tournament has come and gone. Will they stand empty, white elephants in the desert, testimony to an ill-conceived splurge?

The small Gulf State of Qatar is presently undertaking one of the most elaborate construction projects in the Gulf region, in readiness for the FIFA 2022 World Cup tournament. In the line-up of deliverables are eight stadiums. However, after the event will they stand empty, given the small population and the inclement climate?

To put this concern into perspective, consider South Africa’s take on the 2010 World Cup it hosted.

When South Africa won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2010, the euphoria in the country was tangible. Visions of coffers being filled as construction and infrastructure projects filled bank accounts had the population in a frenzy.

Private citizens calculated how much they could rent their private properties out for during the one-month tournament, and real estate sales around the stadium sites shot through the proverbial roof. While the rest of the world found itself deep in the grip of the 2009 recession, South Africans brimmed with optimism and enthusiasm.

The World Cup fuelled infrastructure spend on improving the highway network around Gauteng, the richest province in South Africa and the famous FNB Stadium, colloquially called the ‘Calabash’ (known as Soccer City during the World Cup), started to take shape, while the country’s first high speed commuter train, the Gautrain was set to debut in time for the event.

Johannesburg’s ‘Calabash’, seats an impressive 94,000 spectators, while in Cape Town, nestled in the shade of Table Mountain sits the equally impressive Green Point Stadium, which can accommodate up to 65,000 fans. Both were built for the World Cup, despite large stadia already existing in both cities.

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) released a report forecasting that the economy would grow at a rate of 3.6% in 2011, while the African Economic Outlook 2011 report revealed that GDP was expected to grow at a rate of 4.3% in 2012.

But things didn’t quite pan out as expected. In a statement SAIIA said that South Africa’s real GDP had recovered from -1.7% in 2009 to 2.8% in 2010, adding: “This rate of GDP growth remained clearly below trend, estimated around four per cent per annum for South Africa,” it stated.

Now, six years later, both stadiums, considering their size and cost (Green Point Stadium cost $600 million to build), spend the vast majority of their time empty and unused, with the ‘Calabash’ literally witnessing grass growing in its once pristine pavements.

Back in 2011, Eugene van Vuuren, a technical adviser for the 2010 World Cup spoke at a stadium design and development conference in Doha, Qatar, and had this to say about South Africa’s stadia: “The new stadiums in Cape Town and Durban – until they get it right where the rugby guys are joining the party – will always have a tough time.” And indeed they have had a ‘tough time’.

At one stage, demolishing the stadiums was on the cards as the (ill-considered)maintenance cost amounted to hundreds of thousands of rands per month, and it was only (mainly sentimental) public hue and cry that prevented this drastic action.

Deepak Murthy, operation manager, Al Doha Maintenance & Services, says this about stadiums: “If we consider the standard benchmark of 30% as the construction cost, the remaining 70% is for the maintenance of the facility throughout its life cycle. This provides immense opportunity for service providers specialised in FM services, both in the hospitality and sports sectors” – something South Africa obviously didn’t consider too closely.

But this is where Qatar has got it right. The small Gulf State is keen to avoid the problem of ‘white elephant’ stadiums and has planned ahead to transform its venues after the tournament into other sporting or educational facilities.

Qatar’s stadia will accommodate maximum crowds between 40,000 and a whopping 80,000 in Lusail stadium.

With forethought and planning, the designs include a ‘legacy’ consideration where 20,000 seats from each stadium will be demounted and shipped off to countries in need of sports facilities. Principal architect from Populous, Dan Meis, who designed the Sports City Stadium for the 2022 World Cup hosts, says: “The idea of creating buildings to be multipurpose and long use, ends up developing a lot more and that becomes a legacy for Qatar. The World Cup comes here, changes the country and creates development and experiences the country didn’t have before.”

To its credit, Qatar has taken a hard look at what has gone before, learning from existing examples and has come back with solutions that will ensure that it is not left with white elephants once the final whistle blows.

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