How Qatar became this year's World Cup host : Throughline Football, aka soccer, is life. At least, it is for many people across the globe. There are few things that are universally beloved but this sport comes close. And as teams on nearly every continent prepare for the start of the World Cup, all eyes are on one tiny country at the tip of the desert. Qatar. The first Arab country ever to secure the World Cup bid. But it's been a long and complicated road to get to this moment. Espionage. Embargoes. Covert deals. This is the story of Qatar's decades-long pursuit of the World Cup bid and its role in the nation's transformation into a global power.

How Qatar became this year's World Cup host

How Qatar became this year's World Cup host

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Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Flags, a statue of a soccer ball, and images of Harry Kane of England and Virgil van Dijk of Netherlands are seen on sky scrapers ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

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Qatar is the first Arab country to ever host the World Cup. And for the first time, soccer's biggest tournament is happening in November and December, instead of June and July, when it's normally held. The entire global event was specially moved to a cooler time of year to avoid the hot summers of the Persian Gulf — or Khaleej in Arabic.

Qatar is a very small peninsula country, mostly made up of arid desert, that shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and a sea border in the Persian Gulf with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Iran.

What isn't small is Qatar's bank account. It's among the richest countries in the world. The average income of Qatar's 300,000 citizens is the highest of any country in the world. Plus, they don't pay taxes and get free health care and free education.

But those citizens make up just 10% of Qatar's population. The other 90% — immigrants from around the world — don't get the same perks.

"It's just spent $200 billion at least on hosting this World Cup — on winning the bid, building the stadiums, building the infrastructure," award-winning author and sports journalist James Montague says.

Over the past couple of decades, Montague has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, including to Qatar. He wrote a book called When Friday Comes, which is the modern story of football, aka soccer, in the region, and especially the rise of the Gulf.

Montague, who has been called "the Indiana Jones of soccer writing," says that on these travels he got to experience the region in a way many people don't get to.

"I do realize I'm — you know, I'm a white man. I'm a white Westerner, white English person. And so I had a, in some ways, kind of quite privileged position in that respect," he says. "And because a lot of people will say, if you're a football writer or a sports writer, you're a bit of an idiot, you know, it also gave you incredible access to spaces that you never really would've — it would've been much harder to get. And this was the key to the way that I then ended up seeing the Middle East."

In the Middle East, like in much of the world, football — soccer — is life.

But what no one could have predicted was that, of all the countries in the region, Qatar would be the first to host a World Cup. So how did we get here?

In this episode, Throughline pulls back the curtain on Qatar's decades-long pursuit of soccer greatness and the role of sport in branding the country as a global power. It's a story of backroom deals, exploitation, and a really aspirational musical.

Listen to Throughline on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.