World Cup fans are trying to find joy in a complicated tournament

Aasked why he chose to stay on the MSC Poesia, one of three huge cruise ships currently docked in Doha for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Australia fan Rob Maurich gave a straightforward answer: “Alcohol”.

Alcohol is highly restricted in the small Gulf nation, available at certain times in luxury hotels and one official FIFA Fan Festival, where beer is only sold between 7pm and 1am (Qatar also has one liquor store, but purchases are limited to non-Muslim residents.) Cruise ships are exempt from these rules, which means—win, lose, or tie—Maurich and his pals can fend off the chill until the wee hours. “Especially after late games, you’re back on the boat by 1.30am and then everyone’s on board for a few evening drinks,” he says. “We’ve had a few delays!”

Of course, this comes with a price. Cabins on the cruise ship were initially listed at around $250 per night, but as the tournament approached, they were booked for over $1,000. Erik Daduch, a consultant from Sweden, spends $400 a night for a small, windowless cabin on the albeit luxurious MSC Europa. He found the whole spectacle in Doha rather unimpressive. “It’s just really empty everywhere,” Daduh says. “We went back through town and there was nobody but migrant workers in Argentine shirts.”

FIFA and the Qatari government have spent the past 12 years insisting that meticulous preparations are 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 relationshipsand uncomfortable questions about how a small but incredibly wealthy Gulf nation came to host the world’s biggest sporting event. “When the original bid went through, most people in the football industry thought it was funny, that it wasn’t serious,” said Geoff Pearson, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester whose research focuses on law and security in football.

Read more: Thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar’s extreme heat. The World Cup forced a reckoning

Many fans have chosen to stay away, but those who have traveled to Doha are determined not to let the countless contradictions taint their experience, despite stifling policing, including relentless ID checks and unpredictable regulations such as the 11th hour decision to banning the sale of alcohol outside stadiums. It’s an uphill battle though.

“It’s very spacious, very clean, the people are very friendly,” said Kon Harboglu, a civil servant from Melbourne who traveled to support Australia with his 18-year-old son Joseph. “But I don’t think it has the spark it needs and I think there will be a lot less interest and less fans with this World Cup, unfortunately, because of people thinking about corruption and other [controversies].”

All 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 broke television viewership records, with an estimated 5 billion people listening from around the world. And despite the controversy over the reduced availability of Budweiser – which is paying around $75 million to be associated with the World Cup – FIFA announced that it sold all its commercial sponsorship packages. Not that traveling fans will welcome this development.

But while finding, rather than recovering from, beer has been the biggest headache for many fans at this year’s tournament, it’s far from the only obstacle. Guests at some expensive hotels have found they can’t watch the World Cup anywhere on the premises because leading broadcaster BeIN Sports has charged a subscription fee of 100,000 Qatari riyals ($27,500) for commercial businesses to show games. This means that too many businesses are not showing the games at all.

“It feels strange,” said Anni Borgvard, a dentist from Stockholm who attended Tuesday’s Argentina-Saudi Arabia match. “You don’t feel like it’s really real life, so to speak. It feels like a theme park, nothing feels real.”

Read more: LGBTQ rights band ‘One Love’ makes waves at World Cup in Qatar

Still, not everyone agrees with this opinion. In the Argentina-Saudi Arabia match, the latter drew an an upset for the agescausing an burst of joy among much of the Arab world. Even Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country was subject to a four-year Saudi-led blockade that ended in 2021 over its alleged support for Islamist groups in the region, could be seen heartily fanning Saudi flag during the game.

“The World Cup is on its way [soccer], not beer,” says Farid, 26, an Algerian who previously studied in Qatar and returned to Doha to see old friends and support Morocco at the World Cup. “Why should a country be excluded just because people don’t like alcohol?”

“Not very appealing to fans”

Some fans have you paid over $200 for a plastic tent no air conditioning or running water. Others have had better luck. Rocky Martin, 32, an engineer from Portland, Oregon, chose a converted “luxury shipping container” near the Mall of Qatar for about $200 a night that he shares with a friend. “It has two beds, a shower, toilet, fridge and air conditioning,” he says. “But I don’t plan to spend much time there.”

Meanwhile, security measures oscillate between overbearing and downright dangerous. Fans arriving at 9.30pm for Saturday’s opening of the Fan Festival – a bleak concrete space sandwiched between Doha’s imposing Ministry of Interior building and the sea – were faced with a huge crowd that swelled outside the locked main gate, mostly Pakistani security guards they waved their fingers at each other. Suddenly a small sliding section of the barricade opened and the crowd lurched forward with steel barriers toppling over. At least three women were caught in the melee, this reporter saw, as insults and elbows rang out from the crush.

After 20 minutes of fast-forwarding as each arrival’s ‘Hayya’ immigration card was painstakingly checked, the raucous crowd melted into the fan zone, shrugging off danger and humiliation as Lebanese singer Miriam Fares twirled on stage in front of a phalanx of gold-trousered dancers. “Well, that was crazy,” said a cap-wearing Wales fan as he lined up for a Budweiser afterwards. “I hope we don’t have to put up with this every night just to get a pint.”

But far from teething problems, the Fan Festival situation has only gotten worse since then. On Sunday, tens of thousands of fans jostled and shoved police armed with batons and shields. “It’s very risky. People, they can die,” Hatem El-Berari, an Iraqi who said he works in neighboring Dubai, told the AP.

The precarious security situation is particularly worrying given that Qatar has sidestepped many traditional problems. Usually at a World Cup, the twin security problems are the police inside the stadiums and the tens of thousands of “soccer tourists” who want to follow the team but don’t have tickets and demand fan zones and other areas for drinking and socializing. But being an expensive and ultimately unpopular destination, Qatar doesn’t have to deal with the latter. Instead, the authorities seem hell-bent on creating unnecessary problems, confiscation of flags and rainbow hats from fans who dare to support equality and inclusion.

“I personally feel really disappointed with the authorities because they basically banned me from the World Cup, but then I also told stories about it being ‘discrimination free’ when I know our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Qatar are suffering,” says Chris Pauros, a trans woman and chair of the Qatar Task Force for Kick It Out, an advocacy group fighting discrimination in soccer.

Read more: This is the reality of life for LGBTQ+ people in Qatar

It’s not just LGBTQ+ fans who are staying away, though. For Europeans in particular, the whole point of the World Cup is for fans to celebrate their identity through football by coming together, singing and drinking. “It’s just not going to happen, certainly not outside of stadiums or in public places,” says Pearson. “So it’s not very appealing to the fans.”

It wasn’t smooth sailing at the stadiums either, with curious traffic diversions and official buses often getting lost. “It was a bit chaotic in the Argentina game,” says Daduh. “Long story short, we were a bit of a mess. there is [security] people everywhere, but nobody knows anything.

Mauric agrees. “It’s chaos,” he says. “The shuttles drop you too far off the ground and then everyone has to walk miles. We resorted to getting Ubers.

Doha may have world-class museums and some of the most breathtaking contemporary architecture in the world. But despite The FIFA protests on the contrary, there is little football culture to speak of among ordinary Qataris, as evidenced by how quickly Al Bait Stadium emptied after Ecuador scored in home opener. This is a blatant deviation across the region. (Iranian fans, by contrast, stayed until the bitter end of their 6-2 demolition by England.)

After all, the most raucous fans on display in Doha are migrant workers from South Asia and Africa, wearing the shirts of England, Germany and (until Tuesday) Argentina. Although tickets cost around $200, the sad reality is that very few people will actually make it to a game. “No, I’m too busy,” says Ghanaian taxi driver Jonathan Appiah when asked if he will be able to watch the Black Stars play. He shows the photo of his wife and daughter at home on the background of his smartphone. “I need to work.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell c [email protected].

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