The first World Cup in the Middle East is one month away, nearing the conclusion of an often bumpy 12-year journey for Qatar that has transformed the nation.
Qatar has faced skepticism about how it persuaded FIFA to vote for the country in 2010; criticism of how migrant workers were treated building stadiums and tournament infrastructure; and derision from the soccer world for changing the dates from the traditional June-July period to November-December.
The small Arab country jutting out into the Persian Gulf has overcome all of that, as well as hostility from neighboring states who imposed a three-year economic and diplomatic boycott that ended in January 2021.
On Nov. 20, the biggest tournament in soccer will finally get started a couple hours after sunset at the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium — a new venue north of Doha built for the World Cup. The maroon-and-white clad national team from the host country will open a tournament that has come to define the gas-rich emirate’s image against the team from Ecuador — probably.
All 64 games over the course of 29 days involving 32 teams will be held in the Doha area, with many more shows and cultural events planned for a soccer-led party in the conservative Muslim society.
For one month, Qatar will relax its strict limits on where alcohol can be bought, including serving beer from World Cup sponsor Budweiser at the eight stadiums and at the official big-screen viewing site in Al Bidda Park.
Promises of “the best World Cup ever, on and off the field” were made Monday by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who said the same in Moscow four years ago when Russia hosted the tournament.
However, since the decisions in 2010 to pick Russia and Qatar as future World Cup hosts, 21 of the 24 men on the FIFA executive committee were variously convicted in criminal or ethics cases, indicted, acquitted at trial or implicated in wrongdoing.
The president of FIFA at that time, Sepp Blatter, is one of them, still banned from the sport he led for 17 years for various misdeeds. Blatter, however, has said he didn’t vote for Qatar.
About 1.2 million visitors are expected in Qatar for the first World Cup to be played in the middle of the traditional European soccer season, a move made to avoid the oppressive desert heat in the Middle East.
“We are opening our doors in Doha to them without discrimination,” the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, told the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month.
There is one bit of unprecedented late doubt, however, with the actual lineup of the tournament still under appeal. Chile and Peru have gone to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to challenge Ecuador’s qualification, claiming it used an ineligible player.
This year’s tournament will be among the most expensive World Cups for fans to follow and certainly the most political in modern times. Currently, players from Brazil are being used as political weapons in an election campaign and players from Iran have been supporting protests at home following the death of a 22-year-old woman after being detained by the morality police.
Eight of the 13 European teams said last month their captains will wear an armband with a heart-shaped, multi-colored design at games to support the “One Love” campaign against discrimination.
The gesture is a clear breach of FIFA rules. It also reflects unease at home about taking soccer’s biggest event to Qatar, where homosexual acts are illegal and labor and human rights have been a decade-long controversy. Qatar points to changes in its labor laws in its defense and says LGTBQ fans won’t face arrest.
This week, the United States Soccer Federation joined six European federations in backing calls by rights advocates to create a compensation fund for workers, many from south Asia, who have been killed or injured.
“With the World Cup looming, the job of protecting migrant workers from exploitation is only half done, while that of compensating those who have suffered abuses has barely started,” said Steve Cockburn, the head of economic and social justice at Amnesty International.
FIFA deputy secretary general Alasdair Bell said last week it is open to talks on remedy and reparations. It is unclear if any money would come from FIFA’s $6 billion World Cup revenues; the Qatari government, which has reformed many labor laws faster than its regional rivals; or construction firms, which employed the workers in physical and contractual conditions decried by activists as modern slavery.
The migrant workers have helped transform Doha into a futuristic city whose ambitions to rival regional hubs like Dubai and Singapore will be given a showcase by the World Cup.
“As you look around the country today, at the state-of-the-art stadiums, the training pitches, the metro, the wider infrastructure, everything is ready and everyone is welcome,” said Infantino, who moved from Zurich to live in Doha for the final year of preparations.
The infrastructure is there. The challenges for Qatar are on the human scale for a country of only 350,000 citizens in a population swelled to 2.6 million by migrants working in construction, domestic and service sectors, as well as in white-collar jobs.
“The world will see that medium-sized and small countries are able to host global events with great success,” the emir told U.N. delegates.
As for security, Qatar will rely on expertise and hardware from allies, including sniffer dogs, an anti-drone system and a surveillance airplane from France, and a warship and riot police from Turkey. The U.S. military’s Central Command has its forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base.
This year’s World Cup will be hosted on the smallest territory since Switzerland in 1954 and will uniquely have most of the fans living together in one city.
Turkey is sending about 3,000 riot police for a tournament that — though typically bringing a wealthier type of fan than a stereotypical soccer hooligan — should see a boisterous, Western-style exuberance on Doha’s streets.
“We want to make sure that law enforcement … is in the right place,” U.S. Ambassador Timmy Davis said this week. “We want to make sure that in the ministries there is a level of patience and tolerance for what the world brings when you invite the world to your country.”
One recent arrival to Doha was carrying 3 kilograms (6 pounds) of methamphetamine in a suitcase that was seized, Qatar’s customs service said this week.
A party scene is being created in Doha that will likely be a hub for ravers from across the Gulf states, with ticket prices running from $45 to $7,500.
Lineups confirmed this month include DJs David Guetta and Fatboy Slim, rappers DaBaby and Tyga, and singers Amr Diab and Jorja Smith, performing at open-air festivals deep into the Doha night when temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
Close to the main airport, the Aravia festival site for 5,000 people is being run by a Saudi music promoter, and the nearby 15,000-capacity Arcadia Spectacular brings a flavor of storied English festival Glastonbury, including its giant, fire-breathing metal spider stage.
Post Malone, Maroon 5 and Black Eyes Peas are on the concert program at Doha Golf Club.
It all adds up to the pledge Qatari officials have made since 2009 when the hosting campaign started: We love soccer like you, come and enjoy it, but be respectful of our cultural traditions.
—Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press