Doha gets done up for a very different kind of World Cup fan experience | World Cup 2022

Speak to fans in Doha and nobody has a bad word to say. When you announce you’re a journalist there’s a narrowing of the eyes, an uncertainty about what you might ask, but when it’s clear it’s the experience and not the host country you want to talk about there’s a list of positives: transport is great, the city is safe and the experience at the matches has been wonderful.

Most supporters are here for a short while and perhaps on a tour. Two England fans, father and son, had taken in the Formula One in Abu Dhabi on the way over. One American family, browsing the rails at a knock-off sports shop, were taking in 10 games in Thanksgiving week then heading home. What were they doing in between matches? “It’s quite nocturnal, so you sleep. And then you go to the mall. I mean, it’s the Gulf – what else is there to do?”

There have been some miserable exceptions to this rule with reports of sewage flooding shipping container apartments in fan villages, or brown water coming from taps. Some fans have been offered a refund on accommodation that had not been finished in time. Meanwhile Wales fans have had to engage their Football Association to complain to Fifa after their hats were confiscated by security because they displayed the rainbow symbol.

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Still, it is difficult to find discord on the streets of Qatar – that may be because those who are disgruntled have stayed at home. A lot of people have looked at the price, looked at the restrictions – with all accommodation and transportation funnelled through the organisers and entry to the country dependent on possession of a match ticket – and decided to give this World Cup a miss. Official estimations of 1.2 million foreign visitors this month seem way off.

That’s not to say you can’t tell a tournament is on. Doha has been done up to the nines, plastered in bunting, slogans and endless advertising, some of it stripped hundreds of metres along the height of skyscrapers in the gleaming West Bay district. At night and weekends the locals – largely but not exclusively the South Asian community – take to the streets in replica shirts (Argentina, then Brazil, then Qatar in that order) and bang drums on the Corniche and the “boulevard” of the new neighbourhood-cum-city of Lusail.

Fans on the streets of Doha.
Fans on the streets of Doha. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

There are, also, decent contingents from regional neighbours – Saudi Arabia most obviously, but also Morocco and Tunisia. Argentinians and Mexicans have travelled too, the Latin American presence at a tournament thousands of miles and dollars away perhaps boosted by expat communities from the USA. In terms of substantial followings, that may be about the full extent, with other countries maxing out at the 2,000 to 3,000 ultras visible in the stadiums.

The matches are the best place to see people. There hasn’t been a fixture without empty seats, with Qatar’s match against Senegal on Friday the most egregious example yet. But most games have had an atmosphere worthy of a World Cup, largely thanks to the ultras and their resident drummers, but perhaps also down to the acoustics of stadiums built at such great cost.

To be in the ground is to feel part of something, but that sensation quickly dissipates on departure and to recapture it is a challenge almost impossible to master. The organisers have their answer: the Fifa fan festival, a 40,000-capacity space in full view of the West Bay skyscrapers. It has free entry for those with appropriate ID (the Hayya card, a digital application so insecure that German authorities have advised wiping your phone after using it). It stays open till 2am and by 10pm the crowd can be substantial, but they remain quiet. That is perhaps a reflection of the atomised groups of supporters in attendance, padded out by locals who – not infrequently – are taking advantage of the opportunity to drink alcohol legally and in public.

The fan festival has no seating and no shade (if fans do complain about one thing it’s that awnings and umbrellas or even trees to cut out the glare from the still fiery winter sun are in short supply). The attractions on offer within are largely showcases for the products of sponsors. The fan festival is as much trade fair as fun park and beyond it there are not many places to go.

To come to Doha is to experience a city without a sense of the public realm. It’s the absence not only of bars to gather in but of parks and squares too. The best “limbs” videos of exuberant support have come from small, dark bars in international hotels. The American family are not wrong when they say that the mall – of which there are many – is the best place to congregate. But traipsing around the shops does not facilitate the sort of spontaneous meeting and exchange with people from different cultures that usually characterises an international sporting event.

The opening week of this tournament has been characterised by tension over who controls the World Cup. Changing rules over the sale of beer suggested Qatari organisers had the whip hand over Fifa. Threats of sporting sanctions over OneLove armbands showed Fifa flexing its muscles over European associations. Where the fans and the countries they represent sit among all this is a moot point. The strange thing, and this is a strange World Cup no doubt, is that very few people here seem to be bothered.

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