First impressions count and the sight of security staff trying to stop a few drunken Flamengo fans singing football songs at 2am in the hotel lobby was not a great one on arrival here. The Brazilians obliged and went off in search of somewhere else to drink, security returned to the main entrance and check-in proceeded without further incident, but reservations over Qatar’s ability to stage a World Cup – never mind its suitability – had begun. Six days at the Club World Cup have not dispelled them.
Qatar is a desert under construction with a global workforce mobilised to build eight stadiums and new infrastructure in time for 2022. The results from the cheap migrant labour are extremely impressive. The new metro system is immaculate – and 40p to ride in a spacious carriage that could pass for first-class in Britain – the completed and even half-built stadia look spectacular and so, too, the hotel complexes that are rising up along the Gulf coast.
But a World Cup is not just about 64 matches and the experience for those visiting Qatar between 21 November and 18 December 2022 promises to be unlike anything encountered before. As it does for the World Cup’s Muslim hosts and hopes that fans of 31 other nations will respect their culture and beliefs.
The Club World Cup has been used by Fifa as a dry run for the main event in 2022 and next year when the tournament returns to Qatar. Dry run being a completely inappropriate phrase in a country with strict controls on the consumption of alcohol. Hotel bars are the usual place to drink – for around £12 a pint – providing the drinker is a resident or has a passport to hand. Not ideal when the masses descend in 2022.
The same applies to the polite metro staff and their requests, in the pre-season friendly atmosphere of the Liverpool v Monterrey semi‑final on Wednesday, for supporters to queue single-file at the ticket barriers when exiting Sport City station. Again, it is hard to imagine fans of certain countries at the World Cup being so obliging or as patient as the fans who queued for an hour as a result of stringent security checks.
A fan zone was set up for the Club World Cup at Doha Sports Park – £5 a pint – with supporters bussed to matches at Khalifa International Stadium almost an hour away. More will be in operation during the World Cup and local organisers appear confident these will keep supporters occupied outside of matches. That seems optimistic, although the fan zone does demonstrate the willingness of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC) to cooperate with fans and relax laws.
Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of SC, visited Liverpool as part of the organisation’s preparations for the Club World Cup. SC members met Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly and LGBT+ group Kop Outs when, as the SOS chair, Joe Blott, put it, “challenging discussions” were held over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, its human rights record and ban on homosexuality.
“They engaged with us, unlike Uefa or the FA,” Blott says. “We’ve been guinea pigs to an extent. The Football Supporters’ Association and Football Supporters Europe are keen to find out what will happen at the World Cup and we have let them know everything we have been doing.
“It has been incredibly positive. We raised our concerns about workers rights and human rights and LGBT issues and how safe it would be for our fans over there. It was forthright and they said they wanted to change and were taking steps.”
Practical measures taken for the Club World Cup, Blott says, include: “Sensible, light-touch policing. If someone walks out of a hotel with a pint don’t arrest them but let them know it’s not allowed. The price of alcohol. A pint can be £15 (due to a 100% excise tax introduced this year) but they listened to us and reduced it to £5 in the fan zone, which is incredible. And please don’t spike prices for hotels and airlines, as happens with Uefa finals. Madrid was ridiculous, Liverpool fans were fleeced again, but there hasn’t been a spike in Qatar. The prices for flights and hotels are the same as they were this time last year.”
SOS contacted SC last week after four Liverpool fans discovered they had been scammed over flights and tickets to the Club World Cup. The SC provided return flights for the final to those affected.
North of Doha work continues on the Lusail Stadium, an 80,000-seat venue that will stage the opening game of the World Cup and the final. When the tournament is over in a country with a smaller land mass than Northern Ireland, the stadium will be no more. It will be converted into a “community hub” of retail space, accommodation and community facilities. Of the other seven stadiums, one will be dismantled and shipped to Africa while 20,000 seats from each of the remaining six will be removed and given to stadiums in developing countries.
One message heard regularly this past week is that the impending end of the kafala system, which ties migrant workers to sponsorship by their employer and prevents them moving jobs or leaving the country without approval, will have a ripple effect throughout the Gulf region.
Tamim El Abed, project manager at Lusail Stadium, says: “We have put in place a lot of measures that were never seen before in the region. Where they [workers] didn’t previously have a worker welfare officer, now they do. Where they didn’t previously have a way of reimbursing people for fees paid to middlemen, now they do. Where they previously withheld people’s passports, now they don’t.
Ultimately you can only go on this journey with the private sector. You can write and enforce as many laws as you want but if the other side doesn’t implement them you have a breakdown in the process. Hopefully, by the end of this journey this is something that will be taken for granted and they’ll continue doing business the way we have established. We hope.”