Robert Jackman

What visitors to the Qatar World Cup can expect

Football fans heading to the Gulf are in for a strange experience

  • From Spectator Life
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In his first interview since being reappointed, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly laid down some clear diplomatic water between his party and Labour – confirming that, unlike Keir Starmer, he would attend this winter’s Qatar World Cup.

The Foreign Secretary won’t be alone. The Football Association expects that some 10,000 England fans will make the journey to a World Cup widely regarded as the most controversial in history (though Prince William, the FA’s president, will reportedly not be among them).

So what awaits them when they get there? If the headlines so far are anything to go by, they could be in for a rude awakening. From sky-high prices for a pint (and drunk tanks for fans rich enough to have too much) to potential airport chaos, the upcoming tournament is seen by some as a fiasco waiting to happen.

My own visit to Qatar – to attend a football match billed as a World Cup ‘test run’ – was less dramatic. But it did give an insight into just how strange the whole experience might be for those heading to the Gulf this winter.

First, the positives. At the risk of treading dangerously close to that old cliche about autocrats making the trains run on time, Doha’s new metro system works like a dream. On the night of the Lusail Super Cup, it ferried tens of thousands of fans to the stadium with minimal disruption. You certainly wouldn’t get that in London or Paris.

And what of the stadiums themselves? While the likes of the Lusail Stadium will always be marred by the accusations of human rights abuses during their construction, they really are state of the art. A bittersweet tribute, then, to the construction workers whose faces are displayed on the side of the stadium.

At the risk of treading dangerously close to that old cliche about autocrats making the trains run on time, Doha’s new metro system works like a dream

But as brilliant as the stadium itself might be, the Lusail atmosphere felt disappointingly flat. The small pockets of Saudi and Egyptian partisan fans were far outnumbered by a preponderance of bored locals (some of whom had come mainly for the pre-match concert). By full-time, the ground had thinned out considerably.

Will an abundance of neutral fans prove to be a buzzkill at November’s tournament? One Doha-based England fan was less pessimistic, pointing to the sizeable number of European fans already living in Qatar and Dubai. Like other locals, he’d already snapped up tickets for every possible England game – including the final.

I was left with another question, though. Just what exactly will travelling fans do between the games? Like most Gulf cities, Doha isn’t exactly blessed with public spaces to host large crowds. The closest thing to a ‘town square’ – the Souq Waqif – is around the size of Soho’s Chinatown, and completely dry to boot.

The plan is to close down one of Doha’s largest highways to create a ‘fan zone’ where games will be shown on huge televisions. Qatar’s diligent PRs gush about the spectrum of street food that will be available. But I suspect most fans will be more interested in the other offering: the beer.

Talk to British football fans about the World Cup and one word soon comes up: alcohol. Yet on the ground in Qatar, the picture is slightly different. In press conferences, officials look visibly irritated to be asked yet another question about alcohol (perhaps they’d prefer to be quizzed about LGBT fans instead…).

You might have more sympathy with the hosts if they hadn’t been so shifty with their position. Despite promising beer in the fan zones, Qatar kicked its heels when it came to confirming the details – finally doing so last month. It’s also reversed its position on selling beer in stadiums, much to the irritation of sponsors Budweiser.

Fans should remember Qatar’s booze laws are much stricter than some of their neighbours. Unlike Dubai or Bahrain, you can’t bring alcohol with you into the country. And while most western hotels have licensed bars in the basement, their restaurants are often totally dry – so no wine with dinner.

Then again, visitors may have more pressing concerns – such as finding somewhere to stay in the first place. A shortage of hotel rooms means that some England fans have had to make reservations in Dubai instead – a 45-minute plane ride away. And it turns out they’ll need to pay for a new Covid test every time they fly in.

There are some alternatives. For around £200 a night, you can book a special ‘cabin’, essentially a converted shipping container, near the Lusail Stadium. When I visited in September, I was keen to try one – only to be told that the hot weather could prove a serious safety risk. Let’s hope temperatures drop below 30 degrees by next month.

Another option is to wait until December, by which time demand is set to fall considerably as teams crash out. Looking at the dates of the quarter-finals (9 and 10 December), it’s possible to get return flights (from London) and an Airbnb for just over £1,000. You may even find room at the Doha branch of Premier Inn.

For football fans feeling particularly hopeful for the Three Lions (and the organisational prowess of Qatar) it may be worth a shot. The Foreign Secretary says the World Cup will be both safe and exciting. He may well be right – but it certainly won’t be normal.