AWhen asked why he decided to stay on MSC Poesia, one of three major cruise ships currently docked in Doha for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Australia fan Rob Maurich gives a straight answer: “Alcohol.”
Liquor is severely restricted in the tiny Gulf nation, with limited hours available at luxury hotels and a single official FIFA fan festival, where beer is only sold between 7pm and 1am (Qatar also has a liquor store, but purchases are on non (Muslims restrict residents.) Cruise ships are exempt from these rules, meaning Maurich and his buddies — win, lose or tie — could get cold into the wee hours. “Especially after the late games, you get back to the boat at 1:30 and then everyone comes over for some nightcaps,” he says. “We’ve had a few delays!”
Of course, this comes at a cost. The price for cruise ship staterooms was originally advertised at around $250 per night, but as the tournament approached it was posted to over $1,000. Erik Dahdouh, a consultant from Sweden, spends $400 a night for a tiny, windowless cabin on the albeit luxurious MSC Europa. He found the whole spectacle in Doha rather disappointing. “It’s just very empty everywhere,” says Dahdouh. “We walked back across town and there’s nobody there except migrant workers in Argentinian shirts.”
FIFA and the Qatari government have insisted for the past 12 years that the first World Cup ever hosted in the Arab world was carefully prepared. But the scrutiny has dogged Qatar as human rights groups and much of the world’s media focus on the exploitation of migrant workers, the government’s criminalization of same-sex relationships and uncomfortable questions about how a tiny but incredibly wealthy Gulf nation came to be host to the world’s greatest sport becoming world event. “When the original offer was accepted, most people in the football industry thought it was ridiculous, that it wasn’t serious,” says Geoff Pearson, a lecturer at the University of Manchester whose research focuses on football law and safety.
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Many fans have chosen to stay away, but those who have made the trip to Doha have expressed their determination not to, despite stifling police work, including relentless ID document checks, and unpredictable regulations like the 11th hour to be marred by the myriad controversies decision to ban the sale of alcohol outside stadiums. However, it is an uphill battle.
“It’s very spacious, very clean, people are very friendly,” said Con Harboglou, a Melbourne official who has traveled with his 18-year-old son Joseph to support Australia. “But I don’t think it has the spark it should have and I think unfortunately at this World Cup there will be a lot less interest and less fans because of people thinking about corruption and stuff like that [controversies].”
Around 3 million fans traveled to Russia in 2018, but only 1.2 million are expected in Qatar. Nonetheless, this year’s tournament is expected to break television viewing records as around 5 billion people tune in from around the world. And despite controversy over Budweiser’s reduced availability – which is paying around $75 million to be associated with the World Cup – FIFA announced it has sold out all of its commercial sponsorship packages. Not that traveling fans will be toasting to this development.
But while finding beer – rather than recovering from it – was perversely the biggest headache for many fans at this year’s tournament, it’s far from the only criticism. Guests at some expensive hotels have found they can’t watch the World Cup from anywhere on-site as host broadcaster BeIN Sports has charged a staggering 100,000 Qatari riyals ($27,500) subscription fee from commercial companies to broadcast games . This has led to far too many companies not showing the games at all.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said Annie Borgwardt, a Stockholm-based dentist who attended the Argentina-Saudi Arabia game. “You don’t feel like it’s really real life, so to speak. It feels like a theme park, nothing feels real.”
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But not everyone agrees with this feeling. In the game between Argentina and Saudi Arabia, the latter caused a long surprise and caused great joy in large parts of the Arab world. Even the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country had been the target of a four-year Saudi-led blockade – ending in 2021 – over its alleged support of Islamist groups in the region, was seen heartily giving a Saudi flag waved during the game.
“The World Cup is coming up [soccer], not beer,” says Farid, 26, an Algerian who previously studied in Qatar and has returned to Doha to see old friends and supports Morocco at the World Cup. “Why should a country be excluded just because people don’t like alcohol?”
“It’s not very attractive to fans”
Some fans have spent over $200 for a plastic tent with no air conditioning or running water. Others were luckier. Rocky Martin, 32, an engineer from Portland, Or., settled on a converted “deluxe shipping container” near the Mall of Qatar for around $200 a night, which he shares with a friend. “It has two beds, shower, toilet, refrigerator and air conditioning,” he says. “But I don’t think I’ll be spending much time there.”
Meanwhile, safety precautions have vacillated between overbearing and downright dangerous. Fans who arrived at 9:30pm for the opening of Saturday’s fan festival – a desolate concrete expanse between Doha’s imposing Interior Ministry building and the sea – were met by a huge crowd that swelled outside a locked main gate, mostly Pakistani security guards wagging their fingers to each other. Suddenly a tiny slit in the barricade was ripped open and the crowd staggered forward, steel barriers toppling over. At least three women fell under the melee, this reporter saw, as insults and elbows were thrown from the scrum.
After 20 minutes of meticulously checking each arrival’s “Hayya” immigration card, the gasping mob merged with the fan zone, brushing away the danger and outrage as Lebanese singer Myriam Fares performed in front of a phalanx of dancers in gold pantaloons on the stage twirled . “Well that was crazy,” said a Wales fan in a bucket hat while queuing for a Budweiser afterwards. “I hope we don’t have to endure this every night just to get a pint.”
But far from teething troubles, the situation at Fanfest has only gotten worse since then. On Sunday, tens of thousands of fans pushed and shoved against police armed with batons and shields. “It’s very risky. Guys, they could die,” Hatem El-Berarri, an Iraqi who said he works in neighboring Dubai, told the AP.
The delicate security situation is particularly worrying given that Qatar has sidestepped many traditional problems. Typically at a World Cup, the twin security issues are the police inside the stadiums and the tens of thousands of “football tourists” who want to follow the team but don’t have tickets and need the fan zones and other areas for drinking and socializing. But as Qatar is an expensive and ultimately unpopular travel destination, it doesn’t have to contend with the latter. Instead, authorities seem hell-bent on causing unnecessary trouble and confiscating rainbow flags and hats from fans who dare to support equality and inclusion.
“I personally feel let down by the authorities for basically barring me from a World Cup but then also telling the stories about it being ‘free from discrimination’ knowing that our LGBTQ+ siblings in Qatar suffer,” says Chris Paouros, a trans woman and chair of the Qatar Working Group for Kick It Out, an advocacy group against discrimination in football.
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However, it’s not just LGBTQ+ fans who are staying away. For Europeans in particular, the whole point of a World Cup is for fans to celebrate their identity through football by getting together, singing and having a drink. “It’s just not going to happen, especially outside of stadiums or in public,” says Pearson. “So it’s not very attractive to fans.”
Things have not been smooth sailing in the stadiums either, with strange traffic diversions and official shuttle buses frequently getting lost. “The game against Argentina was a bit chaotic,” says Dahdouh. “In short, we got thrown around a bit. There is [security] People everywhere, but nobody knows anything.”
Moritz agrees. “It’s chaos,” he says. “The shuttles drop you way too far off site and then everyone has to walk for miles. We resorted to Ubers.”
Doha can have world-class museums and some of the most stunning contemporary architecture in the world. But despite FIFA’s protestations to the contrary, there is little football culture to speak of among ordinary Qataris, as evidenced by the speed at which Al Bayt Stadium emptied after Ecuador scored in the hosts’ opening game. This is frankly an aberration across the region. (In contrast, the Iranian fans stayed until the bitter end of their 6-2 defeat by England.)
Ultimately, the most boisterous fans seen in Doha are migrant workers from South Asia and Africa, dressed in England, Germany and (until Tuesday) Argentina shirts. Although ballpark tickets start at $200, the sad reality is that very few will actually come to a game. “No, I’m too busy,” says Ghanaian taxi driver Jonathan Apiah when asked if he can watch the Black Stars play. He points to the picture of his wife and daughter at home on his smartphone background. “I have to work.”
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