Qatar’s World Cup is coming together. It just might not be fun

Will many fans turn out?
Will many fans turn out?
Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
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The FIFA Club World Cup, which sees the winners from each of six continental confederations compete every year, is normally a quiet affair. Fan attendance is relatively low, and in Europe in particular the tournament receives little enthusiasm—or even attention.

But this year’s event, which saw England’s Liverpool team take the top prize earlier this month, was significant for an entirely different reason: It was hosted by Qatar. The tournament was in effect a dry run for how the small Arab Gulf nation will manage the FIFA World Cup, by far the globe’s most popular sporting event, in 2022.

Bottoms up?

One lingering question is how the conservative country will handle the availability and affordability of alcohol, something that is widely considered a central part of soccer fan culture. It’s also a concern that Qatari officials have sought to allay repeatedly.

Though alcohol was banned at stadiums at this month’s Club World Cup—a departure from tournaments elsewhere—an outdoor fan zone was set up with reduced beer prices of $6 a pint. That’s more affordable than the $13 typically charged for beer at the 40 or so hotels that serve alcohol in Qatar.

But there was a catch: The outdoor drinking area was at a golf course about an hour from the final match. Spectators were reportedly bussed between the Khalifa stadium and the fan zone. The toilet-less ride pushed some to publicly urinate on walls outside the fan zone, with authorities turning a blind eye—a sign of how they might deal with boisterous fans in 2022.

World Cup organizers say serving beer at stadiums is not entirely off the agenda.

A good night’s rest

Another crucial question is just where the many fans expected to turn up for the tournament will sleep. There are fewer than 40,000 hotel rooms in Qatar, and organizers are planning to have a capacity of 70,000 rooms ahead of the tournament. More than 1 million people are expected to arrive for the month-long sporting event.

Lodging concerns have already pushed Qatari officials to approach organizers of Glastonbury—the famous British music festival—to consider building desert tents to accommodate visitors. The government has also signed deals with luxury cruise liners that might sleep up to 40,000 people over the course of the tournament. Officials have previously expressed concerns that those could turn into “booze cruises,” particularly if England’s team qualifies.

Infrastructure for all

Qatar is building seven new stadiums ahead of the 2022 tournament, each with a capacity of tens of thousands of people. The World Cup will for the first time be held in the winter months, to avoid summer temperatures that can reach 50°C (122°F), and stadiums will be equipped with outdoor cooling facilities to counter highs in the 20s°C. Roads and infrastructure connecting the stadiums are also being built, including Doha’s first subway system, unveiled in May.

Migrant workers’ rights

Qatar has been criticized for its human rights record since winning the bid to host the FIFA World Cup. Hundreds of migrants, who make up about 90% of the country’s population, have died constructing the massive infrastructure projects for the games. But the deaths—the state confirms only three—and the bad publicity from them has also pushed Qatar to reform its labor laws.

The country is abolishing the kafala sponsorship system, in place across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which prohibits workers from switching jobs or leaving the country without their employer’s approval. Qatar is also strengthening worker protection rights, and has passed a new minimum-wage law.

Is it worth it?

In the end, Qatar looks set to accommodate the expectations of World Cup-goers to some degree. But the tournament, which in the past led to even Russian bars running low on beer, is likely to be a less rowdy affair in 2022. And it will come with a hefty $200 billion price tag for Doha—dwarfing the $11.6 billion that host Russia spent in 2018.

Whether the cost—financial and otherwise—is worthwhile remains to be seen.