By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The countdown to the 2022 World Cup final will tick over to exactly two years on Friday when players from Ulsan Hyundai and Persepolis wander onto the pitch at Doha's Al Janoub Stadium on the eve of the Asian Champions League final.
While the metaphoric temperature will be on the rise as the teams fine-tune their preparations for Saturday's title decider, stadium cooling technology will ensure the mercury hovers at around the 22 degrees Celsius mark.
Fears that the world's best players would be subjected to sweltering conditions in the Gulf state have been rampant since Qatar was awarded the World Cup a decade ago, and even with the finals shifted to winter worries remain that the heat will take its toll.
Tournament organisers have always been bullish that it would not be a problem and, over the last month, the Asian Champions League has presented them with a fortuitous opportunity to illustrate that their stadium cooling system works.
Dr Saud Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Ghani, the Qatar University professor behind the technology, said the advances made could revolutionise the hosting of sporting events in hot countries.
"Stadiums, since the start of the entertainment industry of people gathering to compete, have never changed until Qatar got hold of that (World Cup) bid," Dr Saud told Reuters.
"Once we got that, the temperature was one of the elements that people doubted we could manage but, with science, if there is a challenge there can be a solution.
"There is nothing which is unsolvable, and at the same time in a sustainable way."
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought little positive to the sporting world but it did provide World Cup organisers with a chance to show off the much-vaunted technology.
In a window that almost precisely corresponds to that occupied by the 2022 World Cup finals, Asia's leading clubs have been based in Doha to play out the East Asian half of the Champions League.
Group games kicked off at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. local time to suit broadcasters in Japan, South Korea and China, and despite that period normally being the warmest part of the day players had few complaints.
"We thought maybe it might be a problem playing at one o'clock in Qatar, but the stadiums have used the cooling technology and you really wouldn't know where you are or what time you're playing when you're there," said Sydney FC's Michael Zullo.
"It really is the most perfect scenario. I think the conditions have been exceptional for us to play our games and I think that has helped us to play good football."
'SUN IS THE BIGGEST ENEMY'
Dr Saud and his team have used numerous methods to develop a system that is designed to keep temperatures inside the stadium – both at pitch level and in the stands – between 18 and 24 degrees.
Scale models were placed in purpose-built wind tunnels to determine the impact of air movement inside the venues, while everything from the construction materials to the colour of fabrics have been taken into account."We only cool where it is needed," said Dr Saud. "We use filtration systems so we can take out pollen and dust, so it's a clean air. It’s purified air with a temperature that people will enjoy.
"We use the best computers to individually control zones. We have different control zones because wind direction changes things from side to side.
"And we use the best materials to reflect the sun's rays. No matter if it's summer or winter, the sun is your biggest enemy."
The state-of-the-art system can be controlled on a smart phone and is powered by the recently developed Siraj solar project, ensuring Qatar does not have to dip into its natural gas and oil reserves to fuel the scheme.
"All the stadium designs have been designed with a legacy in mind," said Dr Saud.
"We have this particular technology under our belt, we can go and bid for Asian championships, international championships and at the same time we're using our legacy before the games by promoting Qatar as the sports hub in this region, in the Middle East."
With global warming continuing to have an impact around the world, the technology also presents possibilities for countries much further afield.
"Places like Singapore or Hong Kong can take advantage of this. Even in America or Canada, or in Europe," Dr Saud added.
"Because of global warming we are seeing temperatures over 40 degrees but if you want you can use similar technology and try to give a similar environment then you can do it."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney/Peter Rutherford)