Qatar’s glowing reception doesn’t belie what this World Cup stands for | World Cup 2022

It took three days to find the fans. By that I mean fan, singular. And honestly, I had to look for him – always a positive sign on the eve of a World Cup.

Samir was a lone Moroccan shirt at the side of the road, crossing a dusk-lit sidewalk littered with lawless bricks, likely to be used in the erection of another new building before morning. He, too, is looking for supporters in this rehabilitated country of shopping malls and highways.

He speaks very little English and I even less Arabic, but we communicate well enough to realize that both his and my national teams will have trouble getting out of their groups and that he thinks that bizarre Qatar is basically like that is big like a city. his native Casablanca (for the record, the population is smaller and the geography is larger).

Samir is on his way to Souq Waqif, a popular tourist marketplace near the waterfront. The traditional 20th century building selling spices, handicrafts, clothing and souvenirs has been restored since I was last here in 2006. In truth, most of the city has changed, the only truly recognizable landmark being the spiraling minaret of the Islamic Doha Center.

The nation-building exercise since that fateful December 2010 day when the world watched in collective disbelief as this oil-rich Gulf nation was awarded the rights to host the World Cup has been a supercharged infrastructure growth operation with questionable long-term prospects.

The streets are upgraded, the architecture is grand, and the green spaces are sparkling. Migrant workers are everywhere – both in the flesh and in the structures they have created under a kafala system that has been repeatedly censured by human rights organizations. Thank God Gianni Infantino understands.

Australia fans celebrate qualifying at the flag ceremony in Doha in June.
Australia fans celebrate qualifying at the flag ceremony in Doha in June. It is estimated that 10,000 fans will see the Socceroos, many of them expats from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters

Many are security guards – a Guardian report revealed that guards at a Doha park appear to be paid 1,330 riyals (AU$547/£310) a month for 348 hours on duty. Others tend every patch of grass in the scorching heat, while more people man the sparkling-clean subway system, which was installed at a cool 130 billion riyals (AU$53 billion) and features driverless trains that can travel at 100 km/h .

And even when they’re not there, they’re there. One afternoon, a colleague from another news agency stumbled upon a bolt of earth in the Al Sadd suburb, then noticed others evenly spaced along the sidewalk. The next day, as if by magic, a long line of small lampposts had materialized.

Others are employed in absurd numbers at officially accredited venues, including a major media center the size of an international airport with autowalks to boot. Accreditations are cheerfully checked, directions are thorough and guileless, and food is prepared politely. When someone learns your name, they often remember it. So far I have met people from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Morocco and Kenya.

Today’s taxi driver is from Kerala. He has been in Doha for two months, specifically for the World Cup. As we drive, the car’s screen pops up with an audible ping: “Back to your rank,” it says. “High passenger volume. Don’t delay.” He drops me off and whizzes off into the city of skyscrapers, some adorned with giant pictures of Robert Lewandowski and Neymar, among others – proof that this tournament is actually happening.

As it turns out, the fans are close by and can be found on the Corniche, the shimmering seafront promenade where thousands have gathered in merriment. A large proportion just strolled around, their phones capturing videos of revelers and selfies with installations that read “QATAR” and “FIFA WORLD CUP”.

Others danced en masse adorned with the colors and flags of Brazil and Argentina, though with a distinct Arabic influence. A group of Tunisian fans blew the horns, a little girl with her mother in tow wearing a miniature Youssef Msakni jersey – suffice it to say the Australian fans will be outnumbered for the game against Tunisia. Add many Bangladeshis to the mix, all having a great time despite not qualifying.

There wasn’t a single Socceroos shirt to be seen in the crowd, although a contingent is coming. The latest figures from the Australian Embassy suggest 20,000 tickets have been sold to 10,000 people. Two thousand of these are expats living in Qatar, while an unconfirmed share of the other 8,000 were likely bought by the 18,000 Australians living in the United Arab Emirates.

A few hundred also travel with tourist groups such as the Green and Gold Army and the Fanatics. Socceroos superfan Pablo Bateson will be a notable absentee. The Sydneysider has attended about 90 World Cup qualifiers since 1973 but turned down an offer to be paid as a “fan guest” by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

Last week, Fanatics founder Warren Livingstone said a number of factors have contributed to a decline in traveling fans, including Qatar’s track record on labor and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as local laws and customs that will impact the fan experience. First and foremost, of course, is the strict control of alcohol consumption.

The Villaggio Mall, a shopping mall in the Aspire Zone in Doha's West End
The Villaggio Mall, a shopping mall in the Aspire Zone in Doha’s West End. Photo: Emma Kemp/The Guardian

That was before the stadium beer ban. Whispering was rampant on Friday morning it happened. Then came the Fifa statement, which only served to reconfirm that the governing body is acting very much at the behest of the host country it has chosen. However, the online outrage – which almost brought Twitter to a halt before Elon Musk – was non-existent on the ground, save for those who had only praised the tournament.

Visitors can still buy a beer in the official Fifa fan zone, a huge unshaded space resembling a giant concrete parking lot. For those wondering, you can get one elsewhere fairly easily too, although you’ll have to pay for it. They actually spent 39 riyals ($16) on a Corona at one place and 48 riyals ($19.75) on a pint of Heineken at another. In truth, it’s harder to find a decent coffee, as the price of a cappuccino is around 24 riyals ($9.85).

We’re sitting in a cafe in a mall that contains an ice rink, a theme park with a roller coaster and Ferris wheel, and a Venetian-style canal with floating gondolas for transportation. The roof throughout the complex is painted sky blue with clouds. It’s all very confusing. This is far from the biggest mall in this city.

But this is the stuff of a nation giddy with wealth and licensed through football to wash its reputation on the global stage. And that, in a nutshell, is the atmosphere at this World Cup – terrifyingly bright and mocked to sterilized perfection to make the world forget what it now represents.


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