An estimated 1.2 million visitors are expected to descend on the capital Doha, along with a global TV audience of five billion, for what governing body Fifa optimistically hopes will be, “a celebration of unity and passion for the game we love so much”. It will certainly be a football World Cup like no other.
Within days of Qatar clinching the hosting rights in 2010, there has been disquiet, protests and allegations. Ex-Fifa president Sepp Blatter recently admitted: “The choice of Qatar was a mistake.” The country was accused of paying officials £3 million in bribes to secure their backing but were cleared of corruption allegations after a two-year investigation in 2014.
Once declared winners, Qatar set in motion a mammoth infrastructure project, spending a reported $200 billion (compared with the $11 billion spent by Russia at the last World Cup) that involved building seven of the eight stadiums, more than 100 new hotels, an airport, metro transport system and roads for 4,000 buses.
The oil and gas-rich Gulf state and former British colony can trace its modern history back to the 18th century. Since independence, Qatar has become home to more than 2.7 million inhabitants living in an area half the size of Wales, making it the smallest ever World Cup host nation. Arabic is the official language although English is widely spoken.
England start their campaign on Monday against Iran in the Khalifa International Stadium, first opened in 1976 and revamped in 2017. The 40,000-seater national sports area, just outside Doha, is famed for its dual arches now covered by a canopy to aid its cooling system that keeps the natural turf pitch at an optimum 26C. The final will be held at the $767million Lusail Stadium, an 80,000 capacity flagship venue north of Doha, which was finished last November, a year later than scheduled.
In Qatar, public displays of affection can be considered offensive, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or intent. But homosexual acts are illegal, punishable by seven years in jail or even death by stoning for Muslim men under Sharia law. Qatar’s World Cup chief Nasser Al Khater had sought to give assurances to LGBTQ+ fans that they will be welcomed. Authorities have passed laws which they claim will result in minor crimes not being prosecuted during the tournament — but it remains to be seen what that actually means on the ground. British police will act as a buffer between supporters and Qatari law enforcement. However, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly faced criticism for telling gay fans to show “a little bit of flex and compromise.” .
Also under the spotlight is Qatar’s treatment of 30,000 foreign labourers hired to build the stadiums. The Guardian alleged that 6,500 migrant workers died. The host country’s government denies this, saying there were 37 deaths among labourers between 2014 and 2020, only three of which were “work-related”.
For some of the England players’ wives and girlfriends, an opulent new liner dubbed HMS WAG will be their floating palace. The £1 billion, 21-deck MSC World Europa sailed into Qatar through the Suez Canal from the shipyard where it was built in Saint-Nazaire, France. Guests can dine in 33 restaurants and bars. It has an incredible 11-storey indoor slide named The Venom Drop, plus beauty salons and shopping malls. Packages begin at £6,000, and the English Football Association is said to have lined up some of the finest cabins for players’ partners and childen. The WAGs will attend matches but won’t receive visits from their husbands and boyfriends due to Covid rules.
The places to stay
Hotel rooms, apartments, desert camping, villas and fan villages are an option but fans were warned that the trip could cost upwards of £5,000 per person. Ashley Brown of the Football Supporters’ Association says fans are not going in the same numbers as previous tournaments because of the expense and the timing — outside of the usual summer holidays and just before the festive period. Basic cabins near Doha airport are available for £230 a night but these have been called “shoeboxes in the desert”.
Fans are already basking in temperatures of 30C, just above the seasonal average of 25C. If staged in June and July, matches would have been played in excess of 40C and possibly 50C. Qatar had initially proposed hosting the finals in the summer in air-conditioned, enclosed stadiums but that was rejected.
Alcohol in the majority-Muslim emirate is prohibited except in high-end hotels and a dedicated open-air fan zone on the seafront. A “sin tax” applies to all sales, meaning it could cost £13 to £15 a pint outside grounds, with prices at top hotels rising to £80 a beer during the semi-finals and final. On Monday, it was announced that Budweiser stands at the eight stadiums are being moved to less visible spots, despite the brand paying tens of millions of dollars. Once matches have started and at half-time, alcohol-free Budweiser Zero will be the only beer on sale. Drinking anywhere else, being drunk in a public place, betting, swearing and vaping are all offences that can lead to arrest.
“Please, let’s now focus on the football,” Fifa president Gianni Infantino wrote to squads before the tournament, urging them not to let the sport be dragged into ideological or political “battles”.
This has been largely greeted as a tone-deaf plea, and several national captains including England skipper Harry Kane are planning to wear “OneLove” campaign armbands to oppose discrimination. The US, who England face next week, have unveiled a rainbow-themed team logo for the tournament. Thirty-two teams will battle it out over 64 matches in 29 days. Eyes will be on the (likely) World Cup swansongs of Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Brazil will be looking to secure a record sixth World Cup while England are ranked fifth by Fifa — behind Brazil, Belgium, Argentina and France. Optimism remains high that they can echo the success of the Lionesses’ this year.