Critics say Qatar will be too hot to host the 2022 World Cup but it is determined to prove the grass is no greener elsewhere.
Beyond the air-conditioned stadiums now slowly rising from the greyer dust, how to keep the football pitches from withering away in the desert sun is a challenge that a motley group of botanists is trying to solve.
Among date palms and empty warehouses in the scrubland outside the capital Doha, Yasser Abdulla Mulla manages a research centre where a botanist from New Zealand and several south Asian workers are nurturing 12 breeds of grass with water and fertiliser.
Wielding scythes and rakes, they are testing the mettle of the grass sprigs which the lab has flown in from around the world in 50-kilogram boxes.
“We want a grass that is durable, attractive to the eye and can survive heat and humidity,” said Mulla, the turf manager with Qatar’s World Cup organising committee.
“Yes, we have summer winds and dust storms but all grass really needs is sun, water and fertiliser. We are looking for turf that can survive here in Doha and in the region.”
A current frontrunner, Mulla said, is a Bermuda called Latitude 36. Used by an American football team in Kansas City, it has fine blades so the ball skids smoothly across the grass.
Qatar’s World Cup will be held in November when temperatures still reach the mid-20 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) but the grass will run their stress tests through the Gulf summer.
This is when temperatures typically range from 40 to 50 degrees Celsius (104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit) and the turf will absorb an Olympics swimming pool worth of desalinated water every 10 days.
Not everything is sunshine and seed sprouts, however.
The tiny Gulf Arab nation’s bid has grappled with corruption allegations and concerns about abuse of labourers taking part in the $200 billion drive to lay down roads linking glittering new hotels to hulking stadiums.
A gardening company involved in the turf search has faced some of the same kind of allegations that have dogged the wider construction boom for the Cup.
The 16 labourers working on the turf farm are employed by Nakheel Landscapes, a Qatari firm accused in a March Amnesty International report of housing workers in squalid accommodation and confiscating their passports.
Asked about the criticism, Mulla said it was important to work with contractors to improve their labour practices – but as with the sporting extravaganza, the show must go on.
“It’s not about kicking someone out of your facility, you need to improve your contractors. What’s the point if you kick them out?”