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The Engineering Highs and Lows of the Eight Stadiums Hosting the World Cup in Qatar

Besides the games themselves, the biggest stories surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar have been the controversial ones. There is a laundry list of reasons people are upset about Qatar hosting the games, including the country’s human rights abuses and treatment of the LGBTQ community, overzealous security at the matches, and the fact that up to 500 migrant workers died while building the massive stadiums. 

There are plenty political implications of Qatar hosting the games, the first time they’ve ever been played in the Middle East. The tiny natural-gas-rich country has a lot at stake by being the host, hoping to put itself on the map on the world stage and advance its economy beyond the energy sector by hosting what is by far the most expensive world cup of all time. Putting aside the messy controversies and politicking, an aspect of this year’s World Cup that may interest architects and real estate professionals is the incredible (and sometimes not-so-great) engineering behind the eight stadiums hosting hundreds of thousands of football fans until December 18th.

This year’s World Cup features seven brand-new stadiums and one that was repurposed for the nearly month-long event. The scorching hot climate in Qatar forced the games, which happen every four years, to be pushed back to the colder months, which is unusual for the event. Even though the games started in November, the new venues still required a mix of cooling technologies, shade-offering designs, and retractable roofs because of the country’s climate.

A total of 64 games will be played between November 20th and December 18th, and Qatar, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, recruited several world-famous architects to design the stadiums. When Qatar won the bid in 2010 to host the event, it had only one operational soccer stadium. The country rushed to build the other seven stadiums, reportedly spending between $6.5 to $10 billion in the process. Many of the stadium designs are inspired by Arab culture. 

Most of the stadiums will downsize following the event, with one venue made from 974 shipping containers set to be entirely deconstructed and shipped to another country. Stadium 974 is a 40,000-seater built with shipping containers and modular steel so that it can be easily dismantled following soccer’s biggest event. The reported plans are for the stadium to be shipped to and used in Maldonado, Uruguay, for the 2030 World Cup if that country’s bid to host wins out. The stadium was designed as a tribute to Qatar’s history in seafaring and international trade. Many of the materials for the stadium were transported to the site in the very containers used in the design.

A 2019 artist rendering of Stadium 974. The venue is constructed entirely from shipping containers and modular steel, and it’s the world’s first fully demountable football stadium. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stadium 974 is situated in the portside area of the capital city of Doha and in view of the city’s coastal landscape, so fans will “feel the cool breeze as it rolls in from the Arabian Gulf,” according to the official World Cup website. The venue will host seven matches, but it has been open since 2021 and already held five games during the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup.

Lusail Stadium is the largest venue and crown jewel of the event, with an 80,000-seat capacity that will host the championship match. The façade features triangular patterns and a steel frame with decorations resembling the motifs in Qatar’s regional artistic bowls. The design is inspired by the light and shadow of an Arab “fanar” lantern. The roof membrane, made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), lets in natural light for the grass field and provides protection from warm winds and dust. The roof is also designed to offer shade and reduce the cooling load for the venue’s air conditioning. When the tournament ends, Qatar officials say Lusail Stadium could be converted into affordable housing, retail, health clinics, or possibly a school. The upper tier of the venue may become an outdoor terrace when the World Cup is over.

An artist rendering of Lusail Stadium, which will host the FIFA 2022 World Cup championship match. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first match of the 2022 World Cup was played in another impressive venue, Al Bayt Stadium, which opened in 2021. The design resembles a tent historically used by nomadic peoples in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf region. A PFTE-woven fiberglass membrane is used on the retractable roof to complement the stadium’s cooling technologies. After the World Cup, the 60,000-seat venue will downsize to 40,000 seats, a modular upper tier will be removed, and many seats will be repurposed for other stadiums worldwide. There are also plans to convert the upper-level sky box into a five-star hotel and incorporate a shopping center and a sports medicine hospital into the venue when the games end.

All of the stadiums will also be closely monitored by a command center on the outskirts of Doha that looks like something from a James Bond movie. More than 1.2 million fans are expected to attend the World Cup, and the Aspire Command and Control Center will use artificial intelligence and about 100 technicians to monitor and control operations like security, electromechanical systems, communications, and IT. 

More than 22,000 security cameras are spread across all eight stadiums that use facial recognition tech that can zoom in on every seat at every stadium. Experts in cybersecurity and anti-terrorism are among those working around the clock in the command center. Officials say this is the first “connected stadium” concept to be used at a World Cup, and they claim this could be a glimpse into the future of how major world sporting events are managed.

While this all sounds a bit obtrusive and ominous for fans, there are benefits to it for Qatari officials and reasons for the high-tech. Officials can operate entry gates from the command center, as well as ensure there’s running water in the stadiums and the air conditioning systems are running smoothly. The AI will be able to predict crowd surges and overcrowding, which could prevent chaotic incidents that have happened at football games before, such as an incident in May outside the Stade de France in Paris where police used tear gas on fans trying to push their way into the Champions League final match. A more tragic incident happened in October in Indonesia when more than 130 people died in a crowd crush at a football stadium after police fired tear gas at fans.

Another unusual aspect of the 2022 World Cup is that the event, usually played in June and July, is being held at the end of the year. The switching of the schedule was among the arguments against Qatar holding the games because it is disrupting international soccer league schedules. But Qatar had little choice to schedule the games later in the year because of the impracticability of playing during the region’s hot summer. The country’s football league, the Qatar Stars League, traditionally plays its games from August to April, and temperatures at the end of the season reach an average of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius). June and July are even hotter in Qatar, as average temps climb to around a sweltering 107 degrees Fahrenheit (42 Celsius).

The weather in Qatar is still relatively warm and humid, even during the games being played now in November and December. Average temperatures in the region will be around 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius), which has forced the host country to adjust to accommodate the event and fans. One of those adjustments was to ensure that all eight stadiums were air-conditioned. There were concerns about the ability of coolant machines to bring down temps in open-air venues, but each stadium has been equipped with specially-designed cooling units. The technology was developed by Qatar University to use solar energy to power fans that pull in outside air to cool the stadiums.

Dr. Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, a mechanical engineering professor at Qatar University, spearheaded the project to bring air conditioning to the stadiums. Nicknamed “Dr. Cool,” Saul has explained the technology doesn’t just cool the air, but it also purifies it. Pre-cooled air comes through the grills and into the stadiums, and, using air-circulation techniques, cooled air is then drawn back, re-cooled, filtered, and pushed back out. The tech combined insulation with “targeted or spot cooling,” meaning cooling only happens where people are. The stadiums act as a barrier, containing a cold bubble inside.

All this, along with some other design features, has enabled the stadiums to be cooled at a temperature of about 64.4 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 24 degrees Celsius). Qatar officials and “Dr. Cool” claim the tech is more energy efficient than other existing techniques, estimated to save about 40 percent more energy. The stadiums only need to be cooled two hours before each event, which is intended to reduce each stadium’s energy consumption.

Despite the ingenuity of the cooling systems, they haven’t avoided criticism, and it’s easy to see why. Many doubt that cooling systems in outdoor stadiums could ever truly be sustainable, even if they’re powered by renewable energy. Outdoor AC tech may sound like an easy fix for heat-related illness at athletic events, a problem that beset the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and will probably affect more outdoor sporting events as the world warms, but it’s not exactly environmentally friendly.

From an energy consumption perspective, outdoor AC technology doesn’t make much sense, and it doesn’t take an expert to explain it. Much of the cool air will escape into the environment with outdoor AC, the reason why any reasonable person closes their windows when running their air conditioner. Even the most efficient outdoor AC system will be an energy hog, especially for a giant stadium that holds more than 40,000 people. The stadiums in Qatar may use renewables like solar to power the air conditioning, but renewable energy still requires materials that have a carbon footprint.

There are also reports that the stadiums’ air conditioning may have made some players sick. Antony Matheus dos Santos, a Manchester United winger and member of the Brazil team, recently claimed the AC has been making him and other Brazil teammates ill. Antony said he had a “bad feeling” for a few days early in the tournament and a sore throat, blaming the air conditioning. “Not only me, but other players also had a cough and bad throat,” he recently said, adding that it’s “very difficult for me to get sick.” Some have suggested it could be caused by “air conditioning sickness,” which happens when there’s poor ventilation, and pollutants get spread by the AC system.

The 2022 World Cup will be remembered chiefly for what happens on the field and the many controversies off of it. Even the construction of the stadiums and infrastructure in Qatar has been a sore spot, from the reports of migrants dying to the claims of AC-related sickness among players. The first World Cup hosted by an Arab nation will be recalled for many things years from now, but there are aspects of the design and engineering of the stadiums that should get some notice, too. The 2022 World Cup will continue to generate plenty of bad PR, but there are still some aspects to appreciate, no matter what team you’re pulling for.

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