Bay Area soccer fans in Qatar for the World Cup told The Standard of unwelcoming conditions on the ground, where they say lodgings are incomplete, local laws appear selectively enforced and freedom of expression is suppressed.
A Sacramento-based fan who arrived in Doha on Friday said parts of the Qatari capital still felt like a “ghost town” despite the tournament being hours from kickoff.
“The infrastructure just isn’t ready,” they said. “No one is sure where anything is, and nothing opens at the time it says it will.”
This fan continued: “It’s a country full of contradictions. At a bar, one of my friends got in trouble for kissing his girlfriend, but at the same time our entire group was being propositioned [by sex workers], and that was apparently fine.”
Another person who traveled to Qatar from San Jose said the showers at their lodgings were already clogged after two days.
‘Your every movement is being tracked’
A San Francisco-based fan showed The Standard ahead of the tournament how ticketing, transportation and travel bookings are handled through a single app, run by the central Qatari government.
“It’s convenient to have all your needs located in one place, but it’s also a little unsettling to know that your every movement is being tracked,” he said, adding that stadium officials have reported issues with scanning digital tickets, delaying thousands of fans on their way into stadiums.
The 2022 World Cup is the first time the planet’s most popular sporting event has been hosted by an Arab nation. Qatar, a country of 3 million people—of whom only 380,000 are citizens—will welcome an estimated 1.5 million visitors for the month-long tournament.
Qatar submitted the winning bid to host the tournament in 2010, amid controversy and allegations of corruption. In the 12 years since, the country has carried out a brutal, costly and dangerous campaign to build up its infrastructure, which includes seven new stadiums and an entire network of roads and rail.
An investigation by The Guardian last year estimated that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since work began. Human rights organizations have described the workforce as modern-day slaves.
Overpromising and Under-Delivering
On the surface, booking accommodations in Qatar resembles that of any tourist visit. Those with the money can splurge on a luxury apartment or hotel, or even stay on a cruise ship.
But for the majority of visiting fans, the least-costly option (~$200/night) comes in the form of what is dubbed by Qatari authorities as one of their “Fan Villages”—large, temporary outdoor camps.
A BBC crew that spent a night at one of the camps described rows of white plastic tents each with single beds and no air conditioning.
Showers and bathrooms at the camps are also communal. A BBC reporter said they were missing toilet paper, and the sinks spouted brown water.
The Guardian visited another campsite close to the stadium where the U.S. team played Wales on Monday. The newspaper revealed that much of the camp was still under construction just 48 hours ahead of fans arriving.
While two British contractors who worked on the site told The Times that they “have never been somewhere so uncomfortable” and that “it might be OK if you want to rough it for a night or two, but any longer would be dreadful.”
The last-minute scramble to get the camps ready in time for fans has evoked memories of the infamous 2017 Fyre Festival, which promised luxury accommodation and “the best in food, art, music and adventure.” The Bahamian festival ultimately delivered nothing more than rain-soaked furniture, sad cheese sandwiches and chaos.
Since Qatar is an Islamic state, the sale of alcohol has also been a major topic of debate. Qatar’s official stance is that booze is prohibited for any Muslim residents, but that special permits are granted to hotels and restaurants to serve it for non-Muslim guests.
The nation has since flip-flopped on allowing alcohol at its stadiums, abruptly reversing course last Friday. Thousands of fans arriving in Doha heard of the news only after their flights had landed.
Journalist ‘Detained’ for Rainbow Shirt
Despite saying that “all are welcome in Qatar,” including the LGBTQ+ community and journalists who have otherwise faced persecution in the country, Qatari authorities’ actions appear to be quite the opposite.
On Monday, ahead of the U.S.-Wales match, American journalist Grant Wahl says he was detained for trying to enter the stadium while wearing a rainbow shirt.
Wahl, a former Sports Illustrated soccer writer, wrote on his Substack that a security guard told him to change his shirt because “It’s not allowed.”
A moment after Wahl refused and posted about the incident, he said a guard “forcibly ripped” his phone out of his hands and detained him for half an hour, refusing to return his device. Wahl said another guard told him, “You can make this easy, [just] take off your shirt.”
Wahl refused. After being asked where he was from, he said a security commander then told him that the whole incident had been a mistake and he was allowed to enter the stadium.
Wahl said that one of the guards told him that they were “just trying to protect [him] from fans inside who could harm [him] for wearing the shirt.”
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar, with “crimes” meriting severe punishment, up to the death penalty.
Last week, a Danish television crew broadcasting live in Doha was also interrupted by Qatari security and told to stop recording under threat of their equipment being destroyed if they did not comply.
Like their shifting stance on beer, Qatari law enforcement appear confused and fickle in determining whether they will stick to government rules that say “persons displaying the rainbow or other sexual identity flags will neither be approached, detained nor prosecuted,” yet seven nations were threatened with sporting sanctions by FIFA if they chose to wear a rainbow armband during play.
FIFA was contacted for comment regarding fans’ complaints listed in this article.
Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at [email protected]