From robot VARs to air-cooling: nine things to look out for at Qatar 2022 | World Cup 2022

1) Robot offsides

It’s a new chapter in VAR’s “undisputable success story”, says Fifa: 12 roof-level limb-tracking cameras plus an in-ball sensor. When the data hits, a robot draws toenail lines for the VAR; the VAR checks them, tells the referee and sends a 3D model to broadcasters. Fifa says it will cut the average 70-second wait before a goal can be celebrated down to “just 25 seconds” – and anyone who says it’s sucking the life out of football is wrong: “We are very proud of this work.” Also new this winter: a chance to see more than half a starting XI subbed off in a game – five subs in normal time and another in extra time – while benches will expand to 15 players, up from 12.

2) Female referees

At welcome odds with regional vibes, three of the 36 referees are, for the first time in men’s World Cup history, female: Japan’s Yamashita Yoshimi, the Rwandan Salima Mukansanga and Stéphanie Frappart of France – as are three of 69 assistants. Michael Oliver and Anthony Taylor are the Premier League faces, while Zambia’s Janny Sikazwe makes the cut despite a tough Africa Cup of Nations in January where he ended a game early twice in three minutes, blaming heat exhaustion.

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Qatar: beyond the football


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3) This mascot

At La’eeb’s launch in April, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy played up his lack of fixed identity and asked fans to tell them what he looked like. “Use your imagination … La’eeb is whoever a football fan wants him to be.” That went as well as could be expected – fans quickly agreeing he looks most like the ghost of a dead migrant worker. The official biog has tightened since then: La’eeb, meaning “super-skilled player”, is an “adventurous, fun, curious” sprite based on a ghutra headdress who “comes from the mascot-verse, a parallel world where all mascots live”.

La’eeb, the official mascot of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
La’eeb: not a ghost. Photograph: Noushad Thekkayil/EPA

4) Official songs

Most World Cups have to get by with only one official song. Qatar has the “Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022™ Official Soundtrack” instead – “part of Fifa’s revamped music strategy”. Among the tracks are Hayya Hayya by Trinidad Cardona, Davido and Aisha, chorus: “Yo yo yo, yo ho, You know we better together”; and Light the Sky by Rahma, Balqees, Nora and Manal, whose message is much more Doha: “If you feel like a star, then you feel like me, Gotta treat yourself, like a VIP.”

5) The opening ceremony

Sunday 20 November, before Qatar v Ecuador. Rumoured acts include Waka Waka’s Shakira, BTS and the Fifa Official Soundtrack artists, all there to “celebrate and embody everything the Fifa World Cup stands for”. It’ll be held at Al Bayt Stadium, where 28-year-old Nepalese migrant Sanjib Raya died of heart failure working a 12-hour shift in 40-degree heat for £1 an hour.

6) The official ball

Adidas’s Al Rihla has “Speedshell PU skin” inspired by “the culture, architecture, iconic boats and flag of Qatar”, with “macro- and microtextures and surface debossing”, “CRT-Core” technology and a strong PR game. Yours for £130. Fifa says “it travels faster in flight than any ball in the tournament’s history”, which is similar to what they said about 2010’s Jabulani. So, fingers crossed.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino holds the official 2022 World Cup match ball, called “Al Rihla”.
Fifa President Gianni Infantino shows off Qatar 2022’s official match ball – “Al Rihla”. Photograph: Christian Charisius/Dpa/Alamy

7) Air-cooling technology

Plenty for fans of air-cooling pipes to enjoy: seven of the eight grounds are equipped with chilled water-based aircon systems. Fifa denies that the tech, along with new roads and 150 flights a day, will have a negative environmental impact; with organisers making a “landmark” carbon neutrality pledge. Or as Carbon Market Watch called it in May, an “absolutely not credible carbon neutrality pledge”.

Part of the cooling system at the al-Janoub Stadium.
Part of the cooling system at the al-Janoub Stadium – designed to keep players and turf healthy and combat body odour. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

8) Alternative facts

David Beckham faced plenty of criticism for taking a reported £10m a year to sportswash Qatar, but hasn’t been slow to shine a light on the nation, including in this video about visiting Qatar, released in August: “Qatar really is an incredible place to spend a few days on a stopover. The modern and traditional fuse to create something really special. It’s one of the best spice markets that I’ve ever been to. This will go down as one of my favourite mornings. This is perfection.” Expect more positivity elsewhere, too, with the Supreme Committee giving 400 social media-influencing fans free trips in return for positive comments. Influencers had to sign a code of conduct making clear “it would obviously not be appropriate for you to disparage Qatar [or] the Supreme Committee”, and: “You understand that the Supreme Committee will be monitoring your posts.”

9) Managers giving half-time interviews

Though maybe not many: Fifa’s new half-time flash interview slot is “not compulsory”. The BBC and ITV share the TV rights this winter – up to four games a day from 10am plus highlights, making for scheduling tension: Strictly’s quarter- and semi-finals have been bumped to Friday 2 and Sunday 11 December, while Matt Hancock’s planned win in the I’m a Celebrity final is up against Spain v Germany.