Twenty-four hours ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, fans are pouring in to the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, though human-rights concerns and questions over how a conservative Muslim country will deal with the influx of foreigners continue to dog the tournament.
The topic on everyone’s lips Saturday was the Qatari authorities reversing a decision to allow beer to be sold at stadiums, a last-minute move that will limit the sale of alcohol to specially-designated fan zones. Speaking to the press early in the day, FIFA president Gianni Infantino downplayed the issue, saying “if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive.”
But the rule change has renewed concerns over whether Qatar will backtrack on other commitments, such as welcoming LGBTQ people despite a ban on homosexuality in the country.
For most fans who spoke to The Globe and Mail in Doha on Saturday, the alcohol decision wasn’t much of a surprise. Canadian Peter McCormick, who had flown in with his family from Ottawa, said he “always kind of expected it.”
“They were on, clearly, the fence from the beginning,” he said.
For some, the news came as they were mid-flight to Doha.
“My girlfriend told me this morning,” said Paul Gayet, a British fan. But given the sale of alcohol is banned at stadiums back home, as in many European countries – a legacy of laws to tackle hooliganism – Mr. Gayet said he never really expected anything different from Qatar.
“I’m a Tottenham fan and I went a bit too hard at Marseille recently and can’t even remember the game, so maybe this will help me.”
He was impressed by Qatar, particularly the provision of free transport for all fans and the atmosphere that was gradually building Saturday as people flew in from all over the world.
“It’s been mega so far,” Mr. Gayet said. “We ran into all these Senegal fans coming off the metro, and then a load of Argentinians, it’s been absolutely brilliant.”
Such proximity with other fans was one of the qualities Mr. Infantino touted in Qatar’s favour Saturday. The emirate – not much bigger than Prince Edward Island – is the smallest country ever to host the World Cup. This means visitors are all essentially sharing one city, not dotted around various locations as at previous tournaments.
Other unique aspects of Qatar are less welcome, not the least the heat. The climate remains punishing even in mid-November, particularly on the concrete flats of the Fan Festival area in downtown Doha – where tens of thousands are expected to gather every evening to watch musical and other performances, with hefty prices for refreshments and scant shade.
Fans can, however, seek out shade – or even air conditioning. Around World Cup areas, hundreds of security and liaison staff were left standing out in the heat all day, pointing fans the way to various venues.
Worker rights were one of the main concerns heading into the World Cup, and one of the areas where Qatar has made the most progress – at least on paper. In his press conference Saturday, Mr. Infantino pointed to the abolition of the kafala system, whereby migrant workers were essentially indentured to their employers, and limits on how much people could be expected to work outside in summer.
“How many of these European or Western companies who earn millions and millions from Qatar or other countries in the region, billions a year, how many of them have addressed migrant-worker rights with the authorities?” he said of FIFA’s efforts. “I have the answer for you: none of them. Because any change to the legislation means less profit.”
The FIFA president rejected concerns that people might not watch the tournament out of disapproval of Qatar’s treatment of workers or criminalization of homosexuality.
“If you want to stay home and say how bad they are, these Arabs or Muslims or whatever, because it’s not allowed to be publicly gay? Of course I believe it should be allowed, as FIFA president, but I went through a process,” Mr. Infantino said. “If I asked the same question to my father … he would probably have a different answer.”
Mr. McCormick said his decision to come wasn’t influenced by the various criticisms of Qatar. His brother lives in the emirate and the family was always keen to visit – and the World Cup made it the obvious moment to do so.
The Canadian fan was nevertheless slightly taken aback at how controlled everything was.
“We went to the Brazil World Cup in 2014, it was more free,” he said. “Here there’s security everywhere, it’s a lot more organized but it’s also a lot more limited.”
How those security deal with the hordes of fans who will be moving around the country in coming days remains to be seen. The authorities have promised a “soft” approach, and liaison officers from Britain and a number of other countries are working with them to mediate any incidents that arise.
The potential for irate fans remains high, particularly with some stadiums being in remote locations that are only accessible by bus – often with a long walk in the sun to reach the transport.
Concerns also remain around fan villages, the hastily constructed temporary housing that thousands of people are staying in for the duration of the tournament. Many are arriving this weekend to find their villages still under construction and often lacking in facilities, refreshments and security.
The Qataris can, at least, depend on public positivity from a certain group of fans: those the authorities paid to fly in and put up in hotels.
“We’re not sure what we can say publicly, whether we’re allowed to criticize things,” said Darius, a paid fan from Ireland who asked to be identified by one name for that very reason. “We haven’t been given any guidelines – only not to do anything that will cause controversy.”
He said he was painfully aware of the criticisms made of the Qatar World Cup: “This was the most conflicted I’ve ever felt about coming on holiday.”