It started with a remarkable experiment.
Qatar’s national team was invited to join one of the qualifying groups for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is going to be held in Qatar in November and December of this year. They were placed in Group A, joining Portugal, Serbia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. Because Qatar had already qualified as the host country, the team played only friendly matches in the group and, of course, these “friendlies” never counted toward its ranking in the qualifying group.
However, Qatar opted to play its “home” matches in Europe so their opponents would not have to waste time travelling.
In the spring of 2021, these matches were supposed to be played in Vienna. But the COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken by the Austrian government to combat it thwarted that plan. Instead, the national team had to look for another location, not an easy task in such a complicated environment.
Despite the challenge, our agency pulled it off.
A precise mapping of the situation in neighbouring countries came quickly. Now may be the time to reveal that Bratislava and the National Football Stadium were in the running as an alternative venue. Yet despite considering the option, we were still looking at transportation, accommodation and infrastructure options in Hungary.
In the end, after a temporary home for the Qatar national team and its 65-member entourage had been finalised by us, the destination for them became Debrecen and its elegant Nagyerdei Stadium.
Qatar played their first three matches there and lost none of them, overcoming Luxembourg 1:0 and Azerbaijan 2:1 while playing Ireland to a 1:1 draw.
The pandemic hardly made it simple to arrange all the things necessary to meet the Qatar national team’s requirements, those of the teams they played, and UEFA’s, not in the least while simultaneously complying with pandemic measures. The Qataris would spend an estimated 600 nights at Debrecen’s five-star Hotel Divinus. In addition, they had to be regularly tested and the team’s needs aligned with epidemiological conditions and the UEFA Return to Play Protocol.
The comments below speak best about the success in pulling it off.
“It was wonderful being here,” was what members of the Qatari team and people accompanying them told the representative from our agency.
“We were completely satisfied with the conditions in Hungary, and with everything fine we felt at home. It was a great experience for us – no complaints about either the training pitches or the accommodation. In the face of the pandemic, the entire team, match directors and everyone involved in organising the matches were tested before they were played,” said Ali Al Salat, Head of Communications for the Qatar Football Association in an interview on Nemzeti Sport Online.
The experience the Qatari team gained from playing elite-level matches against European teams wound up being beneficial for them in July 2021, when they travelled to the United States as the guest team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There Qatar drew 3:3 with Panama, shut out both Grenada with four goals and Honduras with two and won its round-robin group, with Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States emerging victorious from their own groups.
After squeaking past El Salvador in the quarterfinals 3:2, Qatar felt positive about how the team was performing when considering the strength of their opponents from Central and North America. Honduras had previously appeared twice in the FIFA World Cup and Panama had qualified for the most recent 2018 World Cup in Russia. How far the Qatari team had come can also be seen in the other Gold Cup semi-finalists, teams from the United States, Canada and Mexico. In the end, Qatar lost in the semi-finals to the eventual Gold Cup winners, the United States, by the score of 0:1.
Everybody involved was delighted. Both the city of Debrecen and Hungary as a whole benefited from the Qatar national team’s stay. Earnings from accommodation, transport and rent for both the stadium and training areas, plus financial remuneration for the service and technical staff was not negligible, but in the order of some hundreds of millions of forints.
Notwithstanding, both advertising and publicity for the reason was priceless. Debrecen indeed earned itself a fantastic reputation providing Qatar with a venue as the football world had until then considered only Budapest and its Puskás Arena, where a number of Champions League matches were played in the summer of 2021 and also Euro 2020 matches had taken place the previous year, to be suitable in terms of infrastructure.
“It was both a great honour and a huge responsibility to have been able to represent not just Debrecen and Hungary as hosts, but exceptionally also Europe”, pointed out László Páll, general manager of Debrecen Nagyerdei Stadion-üzemeltető Kft on Nemzeti Sport, adding that he was proud of the extreme satisfaction both UEFA and the Qatar Sports Federation had expressed with the efforts he and others had made.
These were not idle words. Evidence of the Qatari national team’s content was visible long after the epidemiological situation had eased as they were not even thinking about other sites by the beginning of September 2021. They had come to see Debrecen as home and eventually chose to stay there. Their decision we saw as acknowledgement of what our agency had done for them.
In the autumn, Serbia and Portugal visited Debrecen as the away teams. Shut out 4:0 by Serbia and defeated by Portugal 3:1, the group favourites ultimately outclassed the Qataris on the field and yet everyone emerged a winner during a difficult period, whether the guests from Qatar, the teams that played them, the hosts from Hungary and Debrecen and everybody who contributed to the triumph of a rather challenging project. We are happy to have been among them.