DOHA: The towering frame of Jan Oblak, one of the best goalkeepers in world football, was keeping Qatar out. To their frustration, in one of their final warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup they will host in November, there was no way past the Slovenian at the Education Bay Stadium on Tuesday night as they sought to put up a show for their fans.
But where were the fans? Barring a small section of the Qatar fans, who sang and danced throughout the game, the crowd at the rest of the less-than-a-quarter full 45000-capacity venue was largely made up of expats. For a country hosting the first World Cup in the Arab world, that wasn’t the ideal advertisement.
That too, only days before it held the FIFA’s annual Congress and the World Cup draw, the largest gathering of football officials in the country since it won the right to host the world football’s showpiece tournament in 2010 in a controversial vote. But Qatar has its limitations. A huge majority of its population is made up of expats who in all likelihood feel no connection to its national team even if it has several naturalised players.
The expats who form the country’s labour class might not even be there at the World Cup — the one they helped build. A number of workers ranging from all countries of the South Asian subcontinent, working to lay roads and build pavements across Doha, told Dawn that it’s very likely that they will be sent back home for the duration of the tournament as the Qatar government and FIFA doesn’t want the world to see them working.
They don’t know whether they will be asked to return but unfinished work might see them being recalled. Work at Doha’s West Bay close to the city centre, a hub for plush hotels and the mall, is unlikely to be completed by the time the World Cup begins, they said. Roadblocks remained this week with the city resembling a massive construction site.
Roads and pavements are being laid as well as the promenade on the West Bay. It’s likely to be the most frequented area for fans once Qatar kicks off the biggest football party in the world with the start of the quadrennial showpiece in November this year.
Pavements otherwise are largely absent apart from the Corniche. Highway-like roads cut across Doha. Walking isn’t really an option and public spaces are nonexistent. Thousands of fans descended in large numbers at the Red Square in Moscow during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and at the Copacabana four years earlier in Brazil, revelling in the biggest celebration of world football.
Accommodation is likely to be another problem when fans from across the world converge in Qatar. Plans for desert camps are on hold but two cruise ships, each with space for 4000 people, will be there to house fans with over 800,000 tickets having been already snapped up ahead of the draw. The sales will increase further after Friday’s draw, which threw up exciting matchups in the group stage.
James Dorsey, an expert on Middle Eastern football politics, believes Qatar will have fans from other countries than the usual majority from Europe and South America. “The fan representation is going to be very different,” he told Dawn in Doha. “There are going to be lots from the Arab World and the close proximity to South Asia, there are going to be a number of them from there too.” Ticket sales show that. Apart from Qatar, fans from India and Saudi Arabia are among the top 10 by nationality who have already purchased tickets. A fan zone is to be set up in Lusail City, north of Doha.
Matches will be held at state-of-the-art stadiums which have been prepared with no expense spared. From the Stadium 974, the fully demountable venue named after Qatar’s dialling code and made from that same number of shipping containers, to the Al Janoub Stadium designed by the late renowned British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. And then there is the centrepiece Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue for the final.
The human cost of building those stadiums and other infrastructure for the World Cup, though, has been staggering. An investigation by the Guardian in 2021 reported that more than 6500 workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had died in 10 years since the Gulf State won the right to host the World Cup. Qatar called those numbers “sensationalist” but that still remains a huge talking point despite the host nation’s attempts to say there has been change.
“With the World Cup months away, the excitement for the tournament is palpable, with the final draw serving as an important marker,” said Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is critically important to ensure that migrant workers who made the tournament possible and were harmed in the process are not forgotten.”
On Thursday, there was a stirring speech from Lise Klaveness, the newly-elected president of the Norwegian Football Federation, at the FIFA Congress to remember those who’d lost their lives in order to make Qatar’s dream a reality.
“The migrant workers injured or families of those who died in the build-up to the World Cup should be cared for,” she said in a strong rebuke to Qatar in Qatar. “FIFA, all of us, must now take all necessary measures to really implement change.”
Klaveness has been a leading voice for change since she became the first female head of the Norwegian federation earlier this year. A day earlier she declined to attend a conference held by Building Works International on migrant workers rights, where Amnesty International and FIFA were among participants, as media wasn’t allowed.
Her speech at the Congress drew a strong rebuke from Hassan Al Thwadi, the secretary general of the Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery of the World Cup. “We’re not seeking validation,” he said. “Legacy is being delivered as we speak. We’ve showcased to the world what tournament hosting can do.”
The fiery conclusion to the Congress had FIFA president Gianni Infantino asking for “questions on football” at the news conference that followed. He stressed that the uniqueness of a World Cup, which has all its eight stadiums within a 50km radius of Doha “is an opportunity for Qatar and the Arab World to show itself to the world”.
Infantino would hope that when the World Cup kicks off, football becomes the main talking point with all other issues taking a back seat. When stars like Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo take over during the World Cup, that is bound to happen. But for fans, who’ve been to World Cups in the past, this will be a very different one. That’s precisely what makes Qatar an unusual World Cup host.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2022