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DOHA, Qatar — The half-hour drive from the airport to the US Men’s World Cup base passes skyscrapers and then meanders right onto an exotic island that was once sea.
Upon arriving last weekend, USMNT players cruised past marinas in The Pearl, Qatar’s most exclusive neighborhood. They drove into Porto Arabia and down a dual carriageway with blue-green water on either side. Upon arriving at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski, they found waving American flags and unparalleled luxury, an entertainment lounge and a private beach.
“Incredible,” said midfielder Brenden Aaronson of the accommodations. “This is world class.”
Of course, top footballers are used to a certain amount of waste. But this only World Cup hotel on an artificial island, outfitted by a US soccer team careful to meet every need imaginable, is “one of the best,” said forward Tim Weah. Their lounge has big-screen TVs, PlayStation 5s, ping-pong tables, a pool table and a putting green, the players said.
The wider hotel, meanwhile, presents itself as a “majestic palace” that “exudes both Arabian and European elegance.” During the World Cup, a standard one-bedroom room is $5,163 per night. The palace has an ornate spa, a massive “oyster chandelier,” and marble throughout. It has seven restaurants and four bars; Outdoor pools and paddle courts. It is, in his own words, “an island of palatial splendour.”
The USMNT single-handedly picked it up and snagged it before its competitors could, more than two years before they even qualified for this World Championship. In September 2019, FIFA presented them and other nations with over two dozen potential hotel/training ground combinations. Head coach Gregg Berhalter and longtime US Soccer director Tom King narrowed the list down to three. They traveled to Qatar just after the friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay earlier this month to tour their favorite facilities. They chose Al-Gharafa SC for football and preferably Marsa Malaz Kempinski for everything else.
King then sat in front of a computer in early October and immediately threw himself when the applications were opened.
“It was important to try to get it right,” said Berhalter, more than three years later, at his first press conference here in Doha. “We put a lot of effort into making it accommodating and creating the kind of environment that players are used to. … We want to stay here for a long time, so we want to make them comfortable.”
Qatar’s $15 billion pearl
The Kempinski sits on a remote expanse of approximately 1,000 acres that didn’t exist two decades ago. The area was then “a sublittoral mudflat inhabited by seaweeds, algae, sponges, shrimp, worms, shellfish and snails”. In 2004, Qatar built a “cofferdam” and constructed “trodden land” both below and above sea level.
Eighteen years and some $15 billion later, The Pearl is Qatar’s top destination for wealthy Westerners – tourists and expats. Its central thoroughfare, Pearl Boulevard, meanders past man-made beaches and a boardwalk. There are canals designed to replicate Venice. There are Maserati dealerships and tanning salons – although the actual sun is almost always burning. There are yacht clubs and districts with extravagant European names. There are upscale apartments and precisely maintained green areas.
There are other five star hotels, not just the Kempinski but it is the most prestigious of the group. From a distance it appears to be floating on water, a few hundred yards out in the Gulf, surrounded by the flags of all 32 nations participating in the World Cup. You can catch a glimpse by walking through the Costa Malaz area, but only through locked gates to restricted, unused beaches.
The road that goes around the island, separated by a bay, is quaint and peaceful, with a playground and villas bordering. There is a hot chocolate truck and sports facilities. There are roundabouts and a three tier fountain which two workers tended to on a recent afternoon. And of course there is construction.
At the Kempinski, as at many locations across Qatar, there have been allegations of forced labor and appalling working conditions. According to The Guardian, there have been excessive working hours and wages below the minimum wage – which itself is less than $1.50 an hour. The contrast with the luxury of the hotel was stark. Liverpool reportedly turned down a chance to stay on during the 2019 Club World Cup, citing ethical concerns.
Partly to salve its conscience, US Soccer hired a “compliance officer,” Lisa Saad, a former executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, to oversee the hotel, its other vendors here, and their labor practices. Saad, US Soccer, says “attends meetings with workers and management, visits workers’ housing and reviews audits prepared by the Department of Labor.”
As journalist Grant Wahl detailed, scrutinizing the intricate web of contractors and subcontractors who supply migrant workers to hotels and construction projects in Qatar can be difficult. Less than a year before the World Cup, a security subcontractor violated laws and workers’ rights. But US Soccer’s efforts appear to have wrought some changes while paving the way for a relatively controversial comfort.
‘We have everything we need’
When the first of the 26 players arrived in Doha last Thursday, Berhalter advised them: “Unpack your things, put your books on the bookshelf, put your clothes in the drawers, make yourself comfortable here.”
Because this is not a typical World Cup that requires travel within the country. While in 2014, as defense attorney DeAndre Yedlin said, “They flew three or four hours into Brazil, so they didn’t really have a base — we had a base hotel, but it didn’t really feel like a base” — in Qatar, they spend their every night World Cup in the Kempinski.
Outside of their bus trips to training and games – anything between 15 and 40 minutes – they spend most of their time there. Aaronson said he spent a day “playing a lot of pool.” The players’ lounge, constructed by US soccer staff prior to the team’s arrival, serves as a meeting and relaxation center. On Monday, Weah said, players curled up in blankets and watched the Netflix documentary FIFA Uncovered.
When asked what he thought of it, Weah realized he’d gotten himself into an awkward corner given the documentary’s subject matter.
“I personally haven’t watched it. I’ve been busy,” he said. “But I mean – hey.” He smiled.
But the lounge itself is more than comfortable. “Big sofas, we all just lay down with blankets,” Weah said. “And it’s cool to just be with everyone.”
“And our rooms are great. Our chefs did an excellent job,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “We have everything we need. It was great.”