While Qataris may view the World Cup as a job well done as fans go home with positive views, the legacy remains that more change is needed | World News

It was one evening in Souq Waqif, a few days before the World Cup kicked off, when we first wondered whether things were quite how they seemed.

It wasn’t just this modern market, built to mimic an ancient souq but actually constructed in 2006, that seemed out of place.

Coming out of the metro every 20 minutes or so, as if on a schedule, were small groups of football “fans”, faithfully wearing their team’s colours and singing chants.

Rather than being Brazilian, Mexican, Tunisian or English though, they were mostly from Kerala – these were some of Qatar’s migrant workers, the same people who had laboured for years to build the tournament infrastructure, often in appalling conditions and all too often at the cost to their own health or even lives.

In their groups, they would do a lap or two of the souq, wave their adopted team’s flag and make some noise with whatever instrument they’d brought, or been given. Diners generally looked on amused, we got up to investigate.

Were these genuine supporters, as they swore blind they were, or fake fans, organised by Qatar to create an atmosphere as some media had reported?

After speaking to a few England “fans”, my producer and I were convinced that their football knowledge was too good, and authentic, to have been faked; others in our team disagreed.

Doha, Qatar. Pic: AP

They told us that they had been waiting years for this moment, and were determined to enjoy it because they couldn’t afford to travel to another World Cup; they had followed the Premier League for years and supported Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal etc. And why not? After all, this was the World Cup they’d built.

We didn’t meet anyone who said they had been paid to be there, as some newspapers had alleged, but unfairly or not, this episode was an early introduction to the insecurities of Qatar 2022 – a country as image conscious as the multi-millionaire footballers playing there.

Nothing about Qatar 2022 has been normal: Never has the football World Cup been played during European winter months; never has it been held in the Middle East; and never has a tournament been as controversial as this.

At $300bn (£247bn), it has been the most expensive World Cup in history as well as the shortest, played over just 28 days.

On the field, the football was at times exquisite. There have been moments that will live long in the memory: Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina, Ronaldo’s exit in tears, Harry Kane’s missed penalty and, of course, Morocco’s remarkable advance to the semi-finals, a huge moment for the Arab world.

The temperatures, although often hot at the height of the day, were perfectly bearable.

England's Harry Kane appears dejected following defeat after the FIFA World Cup Quarter-Final match at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. Picture date: Saturday December 10, 2022.
Harry Kane’s missed penalty will haunt England fans

The official World Cup songs, played on a loop in shopping malls and hotel lobbies, at stadia and on the streets, were annoyingly catchy, but fun.

Having a tournament based entirely around one city had its advantages – no air travel, no need to constantly move hotels, and no game was more than 40 minutes away.

The stadia, seven of the eight built from scratch for this tournament, were eye-catching works of architecture.

I thought Al Bayt, designed to look like a Bedouin tent, with burning wood fire outside and all, was quite breathtaking and utterly unique. After the tournament it will be converted into another shopping mall.

It didn’t start smoothly though. The eve of tournament “I am” speech by FIFA President Gianni Infantino, when he took aim at media coverage, was tone-deaf and ill-judged.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - FIFA President Press Conference - Main Media Center, Doha, Qatar - November 19, 2022 FIFA president Gianni Infantino during a press conference REUTERS/Matthew Childs
FIFA President Gianni Infantino made a controversial speech

Read more:
Mbappe vs Messi: Two generational talents
England’s footballers are coming home – and so is Dave the cat

Early problems with the digital ticketing system prevented some fans from getting into matches.

Official attendance figures were so obviously exaggerated, and empty seats remained a feature of matches even in the closing stages.

The late decision to ban alcohol from matches was clumsy and broke a promise made by FIFA, but in the end few minded.

The bar atmosphere, a feature of so many World Cups, was missing and although that made for a strangely subdued atmosphere on the streets, in a month of football I witnessed only two drunk supporters: one, an Iranian unable to stand up before his side took on the United States; the other, an England supporter who rested his chin on my shoulder towards the end of a live broadcast and then presumptively volunteered his predictions for the upcoming match, including timings.

Instead, the atmosphere among rival fans was respectful and friendly. No bad thing.

On the pitch, matches were similarly well-mannered. By the quarter final stage, only seven players had been suspended for receiving two yellow cards, and just two red cards had been issued, one of which went to Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.

England managed to play more than 400 minutes of football before receiving their first yellow card of the tournament, which finally came against France.

Not a single England fan was arrested, and true to Qatar’s promise, LGBT fans were welcomed, with a few public exceptions.

In fact, the most common flag of protest wasn’t the rainbow, but the black, green, white and red of Palestine.

A fan of Morocco ahead of the World Cup semi-final against France at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar (Pic: AP)
Morocco’s glorious run to the semi-final was a huge feature of the tournament. Pic: AP

It was an almost universal sign of solidarity, carried by fans of many nations, paraded by pitch invaders, draped over the shoulders of supporters, used in a victory photo by the Moroccan team, and displayed in hotels and on streets alongside the flags of the actual competing nations.

There were rumours that Qatari organisers secretly handed them out to fans; they certainly turned a blind eye in a way they didn’t to other political symbols.

The Abraham Accords are lauded by some regional powers, and Israel believes the Accords prove a softening of relations with past rivals, but travel through much of the Middle East and that sentiment it isn’t reflected by ordinary Arab people. Qatar 2022 reinforced that.

Supporters show a flag reading "Free Palestine" on the tribune during the World Cup group A soccer match between the Netherlands and Qatar, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor , Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Palestinian flags were a common sight during the World Cup. Pic: AP

The first World Cup in the Middle East has briefly bonded the Arab world – it has been unashamedly Muslim in feel and tone, showcasing regional culture and in keeping with Islamic custom – the DJ set at the opening fan festival fell silent for the Maghrib dusk prayers.

The presence of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the royal box at the opening ceremony, was a moment of genuine political significance; only two years ago the royal kingdom led a blockade of Qatar but that now appears to be forgotten.

The Qatari hosts, after a difficult start, are now relaxing in the success of a tournament in its final days.

And yet while it is right to highlight the successes, isn’t that also precisely what “sports-washing” is? The drama and joy of sport to distract from an uncomfortable reality.

As the football jamboree leaves town, we mustn’t lose sight of the problems this country, and others in the region, still have.

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their second goal against the Netherlands
Will Argentina’s Lionel Messi finally achieve World Cup glory in his last chance?

We didn’t ignore the terrible human cost of building the World Cup infrastructure in the build-up to the tournament, and nor must we forget it, now that it is almost over.

Every day, I saw migrant workers staring out of dirty windows on ancient Tata buses, being driven to and from their worksites.

It was a jarring contrast with the new and air-conditioned coaches and modern metro that ferried tourists and fans seamlessly around the city. This is a land of the haves and have-nots, and more needs to be done to close that gap.

Foreigners weren’t allowed to visit the industrial fan zone where many of the migrant workers watched the games, but colleagues who did report none of the colour and buzz seen at the city’s main fan zones. There are two-worlds in Qatar, living in parallel but not as equals.

The secretary general of the Supreme Committee, Hassan Al Thawadi, finally confessed in a interview mid-tournament that the death toll of workers was somewhere between 400-500.

Whether that figure is anywhere close to the truth, it is certainly more realistic than the ludicrously low claim that just six had died, a figure that authorities had stubbornly repeated for months.

Sadly, the tournament claimed two more lives – one Filipino worker died at Saudi Arabia’s training ground, and a 24-year-old Kenyan died last weekend when he fell from the 8th floor of Lusail Stadium after Argentina’s quarter final win over the Netherlands.

The organising committee dismissed the first death as “part of life” and questioned why journalists would bring it up mid-tournament.

It shows a callousness for human life, too often on display among the elite – sure, accidents happen, just not on the scale they have in Qatar.

Spain have been knocked out of the World Cup after losing on penalities to Morocco, leading to jubilation among Moroccan fans.
Moroccan fans after their national team knocked Spain out of the tournament

David Beckham, employed by Qatar on a staggering multi-million-pound contract to promote the tournament and the country, has been regularly seen but not heard – his reputational damage will take years to correct.

The past aside, but not forgotten, Qatar now looks to the future. So, what next for this small, but insanely wealthy Gulf state, now that the biggest show on earth packs up and rolls on?

Sporting ambitions remain – the Arab Cup will be held here in early 2024, and there are whisperings of an Olympic bid.

Next year the Formula One circus will arrive for the first of 10 annual Grand Prix and one of the World Cup stadiums will be converted to host women’s sport.

They will also look to tourism, but unlike their playboy neighbour, Dubai, which is increasingly reliant on package holidays from Instagram-obsessed Europeans hunting winter sun, the Qataris are focusing on the Asian and African markets.

Photo by AP
Photo by AP

Indian weddings are a hoped-for source of revenue – another stadium will be transformed into a series of vast wedding halls.

It’s a shrewd ploy from a country determined to carve out its own powerful niche surrounded by equally ambitious neighbours.

Energy exports, worth $54.3bn (£44.7bn) in the first half of 2022 alone, have made this state rich beyond belief, and they will continue to find willing buyers in cash-strapped European partners struggling through winter, as the effects of the war in Ukraine bite.

Like all GCC states though, Qatar is yet to work out how to diversify its revenue as the world weans itself off fossil fuels.

Labour rights, which have been “significantly” improved in recent years according to the UN’s the International Labour Organisation (ILO), are still far from perfect and the ILO repeatedly insists there is much room for improvement.

Nevertheless, Qatar should be a model for other Middle Eastern countries to copy, if they have the humility too.

Disappointed Germany fans as their side crash out of the World Cup in Qatar
Disappointed Germany fans seen after their side crashed out of the World Cup

So was it worth it?

In short, yes. Ask a senior Qatari that question a fortnight ago, and the answer might have been different, but with the final now hours away, the overriding feeling is of a job well done.

If the many fans I spoke to, of all nationalities, are representative of most, then thousands will have returned home with positive stories to tell of Qatar. As a host country, that is as much as you can ask for.

Whether FIFA awards another winter World Cup, I have my doubts, and I rather suspect Saudi Arabia’s dream of holding the tournament anytime soon might end in disappointment.

As a stand-alone sporting tournament, Qatar should be congratulated. It was different, certainly, but the world’s biggest sporting event shouldn’t always be staged in the mould of football’s Western powerhouses. And this wasn’t.

In the end, however, it was football, not politics, that brought about change in Qatar.

Were it not for the World Cup, would labour laws have been improved? Would LGBT+ rights have been relaxed? Would traditionally rival regional neighbours have come together in the way they did?

Qatar, I hope, will realise that the World Cup has helped make it a more liberal, accepting and compassionate society; more change is needed and as the eyes of the world turn away once more, that change must still continue to happen.

This country is only part-way on a long journey of reform – the legacy of this World Cup is still being written.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GreenLeaf Tw2sl