DOHA - With the 2022 World Cup still more than a decade away, Qatar's first chance to prove it can host a major football tournament arrives on Friday when the Asian Cup begins in this country.
The glistening city of Doha is still buzzing after overcoming rival bids from the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea to claim the 2022 World Cup. Now the hard work begins.
Qatar faces intense pressure to avoid any embarrassing, Commonwealth Games-like mishaps while attempting to showcase a country desperate for international recognition as more than just a wealthy mercenary that can buy talent and put up skyscrapers.
The hot weather - which dogged its 2022 bid from the start - won't be an issue. The Asian Cup, which runs until January 29, was moved from its normal summer timetable.
The biggest challenge will likely be logistics. Tens of thousands of football fans will stream in for the 16-team tournament that features Asian heavyweights like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia. They are counting on a transportation network with no metro system and a haphazard fleet of buses and taxis. The ticketing system at all six stadiums has not been tested on this scale since the 2006 Asian Games.
And then there is the question of what to do for three weeks outside the stadiums. Will fans be charmed by the souks and desert scenery or grumble over the fact they can't buy a beer outside the four- or five-star hotels in this country?
"Winning the right to host the World Cup will significantly increase the pressure for Qatar to make the Asian Cup a success," said Simon Chadwick, a sports marketing expert at Coventry University in England who visited the country a few weeks before it won the 2022 bid.
"The eyes of the world will be on the country, as people seek to establish whether or not Qatar really does have the credentials or not to host major sporting events. This raises the first big challenge the country faces: Getting the external message and the external image right; in other words, organizers need to make sure that those in Qatar for the tournament, as well as those observing from afar, get as positive a feeling about the country as possible."
Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed Bin Hammam said Wednesday that Qatar's Asian Cup "will be the best ever in the tournament's history."
"The AFC Asian Cup is kicking off soon and I hope we call will be able to witness it," the Qatari said. "You will see the changes in the competition and how we have improved over the past eight years.
"It has been a great effort by everyone and I'm sure it will be the best tournament ever and be the model for future events."
The tournament is also a chance to promote Asian football, which has seen its fortunes on the rise after the decision to hold a World Cup in the Middle East for the first time.
For the likes of Australia and the Democrotic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the tournament offers a chance put their World Cup troubles behind them.
Others such as Iran, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - who weren't in South Africa - see the Asian Cup as their best chance of grabbing an international trophy. Then there are the minnows like Syria, Jordan and India, teams that see the tournament as a rare opportunity to display their skills on a prominent stage.
Unheralded Qatar will be hoping for a miracle on home soil. It opens the tournament on Friday against Uzbekistan in front of what is expected to be a capacity crowd.
"This cup is very important," said Syria striker Zyad Chaabo, whose team is ranked 107th in the world. "We all like to play in the Asian Cup because the World Cup is out of reach for us. Reaching the finals in Asia Cup after such a long time is very important. We hope that we will prove to the world that we deserve reaching the finals."
The favorites this year are the same as past tournaments. It's a small club that since 1956 has included three-time champions Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Australia, making its second appearance in the tournament, has one of the stronger teams, as does two-time winner South Korea, which would like to end a 50-year title drought.
"I feel it is better that we did not win Asian title in the last 50 years," said South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae, who was appointed in July. "There is no pressure on us, but if we win this time it will be very, very valuable for the country."
But as Australia found out in 2007, being a favorite with plenty of big-name players doesn't mean all that much. It lost on penalties to Japan in the quarterfinals and the eventual winner was Iraq, which set off wild celebrations in the war-torn country.
"Our ambition is to be the champions again," Iraq captain Younis Mahmood said. "Through winning the cup, we did what America and the government couldn't do, which was to unite the country."