Asked why he chose to stay on the MSC Poesia, one of three huge cruise liners currently docked in Doha for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Australia fan Rob Maurich gives a straightforward reply: “Alcohol.”
Liquor is heavily restricted in the tiny Gulf nation, available at certain times in luxury hotels and a single official FIFA Fan Festival where beer is only sold between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. (Qatar also has one liquor store but purchases are limited to non-Muslim residents.) Cruise ships are exempt from these rules, meaning—win, lose, or tie—Maurich and his buddies can knock back cold ones into the early hours. “Particularly after the late games, you get back to the boat by 1:30 a.m., and then everyone rolls in for a few nightcaps,” he says. “We’ve had a couple of late ones!”
Of course, this comes with a cost. The price of cruise ship cabins were initially advertised at around $250 per night but were being booked for over $1,000 as the tournament neared. Erik Dahdouh, a consultant from Sweden, is spending $400 a night for a tiny, windowless cabin on the albeit-luxurious MSC Europa. He’s found the entire spectacle in Doha rather underwhelming. “It’s just really empty everywhere,” says Dahdouh. “We walked back through the city and there’s nobody other than migrant workers with Argentina shirts.”
FIFA and the Qatari government have spent the last 12 years insisting that meticulous preparations were being made for the first World Cup ever held in the Arab world. But scrutiny has dogged Qatar as human rights groups and much of the world’s media focus on the exploitation of migrant labor, the government’s criminalization of same-sex relationships, and uneasy questions over how a tiny though incredibly wealthy Gulf nation came to host world’s biggest sporting event. “When the original bid went through, most people in the football industry thought it was laughable, that it wasn’t serious,” says Geoff Pearson, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester whose research focuses on law and security within soccer.
Many fans have chosen to stay away, but those who have made the journey to Doha express a determination not to let the myriad controversies tarnish their experience, despite stifling policing, including the relentless checking of identity documents, and unpredictable regulations such as the 11th hour decision to ban alcohol sales outside stadiums. It’s an uphill battle, however.
“It’s very spacious, very clean, people are very friendly,” says Con Harboglou, a public servant from Melbourne who traveled to support Australia with his 18-year-old son, Joseph. “But I don’t think it’s got the spark it should, and I think there’s going to be a lot less interest and fewer fans with this World Cup, unfortunately, because of people thinking about corruption and other [controversies].”
Around 3 million fans traveled to Russia in 2018 but only 1.2 million are expected in Qatar. Still, this year’s tournament is expected to shatter television viewership records, with some 5 billion people tuning in from around the globe. And despite the controversy over the diminished availability of Budweiser—which pays around $75 million to be associated with the World Cup—FIFA announced it has sold out all its commercial sponsorship packages. Not that traveling fans will be toasting that development.
But while finding—rather than recovering from—beer has perversely been the biggest headache for many fans at this year’s tournament, it’s far from the only gripe. Guests at some expensive hotels have found they cannot watch the World Cup anywhere on the premises, since host broadcaster BeIN Sports has charged an eye-watering 100,000 Qatari riyals ($27,500) subscription fee for commercial enterprises to show games. That has meant far too many businesses do not show the games at all.
“It’s a weird feeling,” says Annie Borgwardt, a dentist from Stockholm, who was at the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match. “You don’t feel it’s really any real life so to speak. It feels like a theme park, nothing feels genuine.”
Yet not everyone agrees with that sentiment. The Argentina-Saudi Arabia match saw the latter pull off an upset for the ages, causing an outpouring of joy among much of the Arab world. Even Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country had been the target of a four-year Saudi-led blockade—which ended in 2021—over its alleged support of Islamist groups around the region could be seen heartily waving a Saudi flag during the game.
“The World Cup is about [soccer], not beer,” says Farid, 26, an Algerian who previously studied in Qatar and returned to Doha to see old friends and is supporting Morocco in the World Cup. “Why should a country be excluded just because the people don’t like alcohol?”
“It’s not very attractive for fans”
Some fans have shelled out over $200 for a plastic tent with no A/C or running water. Others have been more fortunate. Rocky Martin, 32, an engineer from Portland, Or., opted for a converted “deluxe shipping container” near the Mall of Qatar for around $200 a night, which he’s sharing with a friend. “It’s got two beds, shower, toilet, refrigerator, and air conditioning,” he says. “But I don’t anticipate spending much time there.”
Meanwhile, security arrangements have lurched between overbearing and outright dangerous. Fans arriving at 9:30 p.m. for Saturday’s opening of the Fan Festival—a bleak expanse of concrete sandwiched between Doha’s imposing Interior Ministry Building and the sea—were confronted by a huge crowd that swelled outside a locked main gate, as predominantly Pakistani security guards wagged fingers at each other. Suddenly, a tiny slither in the barricade was flung open and the multitude lurched forward, steel barriers tumbling over. At least three women fell under the melee, this reporter saw, as insults and elbows were hurled from the crush.
After 20 minutes of inching forward as every arrival’s “Hayya” immigration card was painstakingly checked, the wheezing mob melted into the fan-zone, brushing off the danger and indignities as Lebanese singer Myriam Fares gyrated on stage before a phalanx of dancers in golden pantaloons. “Well, that was nuts,” said a Wales fan in a bucket hat while lining up for a Budweiser afterward. “I hope we don’t have to endure that every night just to get a pint.”
But far from teething problems, the situation at the Fan Festival has only deteriorated since. On Sunday, tens of thousands of fans pushed and shoved against police armed with batons and shields. “It’s very risky. People, they could die,” Hatem El-Berarri, an Iraqi who said he was working in neighboring Dubai, told the AP.
The dicey security situation is particularly concerning considering Qatar has sidestepped many traditional problems. Typically, at a World Cup, the twin security issues are policing inside stadiums and the tens of thousands of “soccer tourists,” who want to follow the team but don’t have tickets, and require fan zones and other areas to drink and socialize. But by virtue of being an expensive and ultimately unpopular destination, Qatar doesn’t have to deal with the latter. Instead, authorities appear hellbent on making unnecessary trouble, confiscating rainbow flags and hats from fans who dare to endorse equality and inclusion.
“I personally feel really let down by the authorities for basically excluding me from a World Cup, but then also telling the stories about it being ‘free from discrimination’ when I know our LGBTQ+ siblings in Qatar are suffering,” says Chris Paouros, a trans woman and chair of the Qatar Working Group for Kick It Out, an advocacy group combatting discrimination in soccer.
It’s not just LGBTQ+ fans who are staying away, though. For Europeans in particular, the entire point of a World Cup is for fans to celebrate their identity through soccer, by getting together, singing, and having a drink. “That simply isn’t going to happen, certainly not outside stadiums or in public,” says Pearson. “So it’s not very attractive for fans.”
It’s not been smooth sailing at stadiums either, with curious traffic diversions and official shuttle buses frequently getting lost. “It was a bit chaotic at the Argentina game,” says Dahdouh. “In short, we were thrown around a bit. There’s [security] people everywhere but no one knows anything.”
Maurich agrees. “It’s chaos,” he says. “The shuttles drop you much too far from the grounds and then everyone has to walk miles. We’ve resorted to getting Ubers.”
Doha may have world class museums and some of the most breathtaking contemporary architecture in the world. But despite FIFA’s protestations to the contrary, there’s little soccer culture to speak of among ordinary Qataris, as evidenced by how quickly the Al Bayt Stadium emptied after Ecuador scored in the host’s opening match. This is frankly an aberration across the region. (Iranian fans, by contrast, stayed to the bitter end of their 6-2 demolition by England.)
Ultimately, the most boisterous fans on display in Doha are migrant workers from South Asia and Africa, decked out in England, Germany, and (until Tuesday) Argentina shirts. Though with tickets costing in the ballpark of $200, the sad reality is very few will actually get to a game. “No, I’m too busy,” says Ghanian taxi driver Jonathan Apiah, when asked if he’ll get to watch the Black Stars play. He gestures to the picture of his wife and daughter back home on his smartphone background. “I have to work.”