Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has been mired in controversy, with the tiny country of just 2.6 million people - of which just 10% are Qatari - facing huge questions over human rights as it employs a huge migrant workforce to build not only the stadiums needed, but also the infrastructure - or in some cases, whole cities.
A visit to the under-construction Lusail Stadium, an 80,000 capacity arena 23km north of Doha, that will host the opening match and the World Cup final on December 18, 2022, reveals completely deserted (in every sense of the word) land around it. The surrounding Lusail City is not yet built and instead there are vast mounds of sands as workers prepare land for construction. It takes sandcastle building to a new level. The motorway around Lusail Stadium is, almost literally, a road to nowhere.
When Liverpool lifted the Club World Cup, having beaten Brazilian side Flamengo in the final, they did so at the Khalifa International Stadium - an athletics stadium that was initially built in the 1970s, recently renovated and hosted the World Athletics Championships last year.
But where that game, and Liverpool’s semi-final against Mexican outfit Monterrey, was due to take place was the nearby Education City Stadium. A new 40,000 capacity venue that FIFA said was complete but had not yet passed safety certification tests in time to host the event. On a visit to the site though, it did not look finished - and when FourFourTwo took a few photos to document as such, we were quickly approached by a security guard and told we cannot take photos of the stadium. Read between the lines there.
Getting between those three stadiums is quick and easy, thanks in part to a brand new metro system that makes getting around Doha simple and cheap - every metro is an exact replica, with good signage, little or no advertising, and supremely clean stations and carriages.
It was, though, less straightforward when heading to the testing ground of the fan zone, which was located at the Doha Sports Club and required fans to get buses from the metro. The fan zone was popular though, perhaps due in part to the cost of a beer being around half the price you’d pay in a hotel bar in the city (around £5 rather than £10).
“While I respect local customs and beliefs, the price of alcohol in the hotels was also a major negative,” said Reds’ fan Chris McLoughlin. “But I thought the Fan Park was well-run and had a good atmosphere. It's just a pity it was so far out of the city.” To be able to drink alcohol in the open air, at that price, in a strict conservative country in the Middle East would previously have been unthinkable.
And such a change of approach will be further required when the big event does arrive. When fans, particularly those of Flamengo who had travelled in huge numbers, made themselves heard in public places and on the metro, locals were clearly taken aback. Some responded, though, by taking their phones out to video the scenes, others looked bewildered or unsure of how such boisterousness should be received. “I found Doha to be a very friendly city and more tolerant of Western customs than I was led to believe,” says travelling McLoughlin.
You do wonder, though, how it will work when there are fans from 32 different nations in such a condensed space. For all that FIFA have sold the idea of an ‘Olympic village’ feel and a World Cup that allows fans to attend more than one game in a day due to the proximity of stadiums, it’s akin to hosting the World Cup in a country smaller than Greater Manchester. The furthest distance between two stadiums will be 35 miles. From the Education City Stadium you can see the Khalifa International Stadium’s famous ‘Torch’ outside. Most fans will want to base themselves in Doha, a city smaller than Norwich.
When it comes to entertainment between games, fans may struggle. "Spending time wandering around Souq Waqif was a highlight,” said McLoughlin. Beyond that, activities such as ‘dune bashing’ in the desert will be novel and popular, but Doha itself lacks things to do. Writing for the Daily Mail, journalist Ian Herbert described Qatar as “soulless and beige, unless malls are your thing.” A visit to the newly-opened (of course) national museum reveals little - but does feature the envelope that began this adventure when FIFA announced Qatar as the winning bidder for what was then due to be a summer World Cup.
Winter, though, will be the time of the year when the big event does roll around in November 2022, and the weather will be pretty idyllic. Low to mid-20s during the day, a little cooler at night make it cooler than recent World Cups in Brazil and even some games in Russia. It was, however, quite windy so sunbathing may be less on the agenda than you may expect. Still, it will be pleasant and fans can wear their shorts despite this being a Muslim country. Images of England fans stood topless in a square drinking alcohol aren’t going to happen though, perhaps thankfully.
Liverpool trained on a field at the Qatar University. The pitch itself was good, but the facilities were not what the superstars of world football are used to. A competition of 32 countries requires 32 training grounds.
Jurgen Klopp’s side stayed at the plush St. Regis Hotel and competing teams will have plenty of choice for high-end hotels, but that’s unlikely to be the case for visiting supporters. The issue Qatar acknowledge is that they cannot build enough hotels for fans, for those hotels to then be un-needed after the event. Instead, desert campgrounds and cruise ships in Doha’s port are expected to house fans.
Qatar has previously said it spends $500m per week on projects related to the World Cup, with an overall budget of $6.5bn. You can expect Qatar itself to have changed dramatically in the two-plus-years before it hosts the world’s biggest sporting event. It has already “totally changed” according to one taxi driver, who has lived in Doha for the last six years.
Speaking to migrant workers from countries such as the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana, Egypt and Russia, the World Cup is always at the forefront of discussion. One worker, a huge football fan, said he has begun saving already to be able to buy a ticket. Another said he plans to leave after the World Cup.
And that aftermath of post-World Cup will be interesting. Qatar say their stadiums are being built so that they can be deconstructed and rebuilt in different locations around the world. This would be nice to see if it happens. While seven of the eight stadiums are still under construction, two of those very close to completion, and some yet to begin emerging from the ground, there’s clearly still plenty of work to be done, but those that are complete are impressive and there's little doubt that the finished stadiums and infrastructure will be impressive.
More fan zones, which are more accessible and closer to stadiums, will be required. The one here in December perhaps proved a good test and offered optimism that an atmosphere can be created. Watching Scousers mix with local supporters provided a snapshot of the good nature of football fans and what is to come.
Qatar faces a huge challenge to be ready, but it almost certainly will deliver - and be impressive. Fans attending will have a very different experience to other World Cups, perhaps for the better in some respects. But the in-the-moment enjoyment will always be clouded by the conditions that created the experience.
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