Friday 17 January 2020

Marie Crowe: 'The good, the bad and the ugly of World Cup hosts Qatar'

Qatar staged the World Club Championship in the run-up to Christmas and it felt very much like a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in two years' time. Marie Crowe and her family got a taste of what to expect in 2022

Many of those involved in the construction of stadia for the World Cup are subject to poor treatment by authorities and endure tough conditions. Photo: Getty Images
Many of those involved in the construction of stadia for the World Cup are subject to poor treatment by authorities and endure tough conditions. Photo: Getty Images

Marie Crowe

The Club World Cup went according to the script, on the field at least, with Liverpool's win attracting the attention of the football world.

Off the pitch, the mini-tournament was also in the spotlight. The choice of Qatar as the venue for the 2022 World Cup has been hugely controversial, so hosting the club competition was - rightly or wrongly - seen as something of a test run. Obviously there is no comparison in terms of scale, but it still offered a degree of insight as to what awaits football fans.

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But we won't know for sure until the World Cup is done and dusted about the capability of this small Gulf state to hold a sporting event of this magnitude. The rights and wrongs of whether it should even be there in the first place is a whole other matter.

It has to be said, however, that for a family of football fans travelling to Qatar there is plenty to like. It helps that Qatar Airways fly direct from Dublin to Doha in just over seven hours. The experience was smooth and pleasant, even with very young children in tow.

Accommodation wasn't in high demand compared to what it will be like for the World Cup. We split our time between the Radisson Blu Hotel and the Marsa Malaz Kempinski. Both provided excellent service. For children, the latter had a private beach, an array of pools and a kids' club. Throw in three football games and everyone is winning.

The number of people coming to visit Qatar for the World Cup will be like nothing the country has ever seen. During the month-long tournament it is estimated that 1.6 million people will visit the country, and during peak times approximately 160,000 football fans will need a bed. Currently, there are only 70,000 hotel rooms available in Doha so the solution to this problem will be to dock two cruise ships in the port to cater for 40,000 people in temporary floating hotels.

The organisers have also approached Glastonbury with a view to replicating the famous festival's tented villages in the desert.

The good news for fans is that just eight grounds will be used during the tournament, and the longest distance between them is just over 30 miles. The newly-opened metro services several of the stadiums and a single trip costs just 50 cent, while on match days travel was free with a match ticket. Traffic congestion was quite bad during peak times so the metro was the quickest and most convenient way to get around.

The club final between Liverpool and Flamengo, and the two semi-finals, took place at Doha's Khalifa International Stadium. For Liverpool's semi-final against Monterrey there were long queues to get into the stadium as security struggled to cope with the numbers. But by the time the final rolled around, this issue was rectified and a lot more staff were on hand to get people through the checks quicker.

The World Cup will be played during November and December. Temperatures in Qatar last month during the Club World Cup were between 18 and 24 degrees Celsius. There was no sign of the searing heat that's commonplace earlier in the year. Indeed, it rained for a couple of days and the evenings were fairly cool, which made watching football very comfortable.

Away from football, we took the opportunity to explore the city and try some of the tourist attractions. Top of the agenda were a desert safari, a camel ride, the Souq Waqif, the Museum of Islamic Art, and a boat cruise around the Pearl. There were plenty of other options available to fill our time, the malls with their indoor theme parks, ski slopes and boat rides were the most popular excursions for the children, who are five and seven.

Many fans thinking of attending the 2022 World Cup will be curious about the availability of alcohol. Qatar is an Islamic country and it is an offence to drink alcohol or be drunk in public. There is a possibility that laws will be relaxed for the World Cup and alcohol will be served in stadiums, but a decision hasn't been reached on that yet. At last month's tournament, it was sold in fan zones at a reduced price and also in licensed hotels. The fan zones also provided food and entertainment and buses to the games, so I imagine they will form a large part of the match day experience come 2022.

Ahead of the trip, Liverpool also sent out an information leaflet to supporters on what to wear and how to behave in Qatar. The leaflet included guidelines on how women should dress in public, as in shoulders and knees should be covered. It was a strange experience having to dress a certain way to attend a football game.

As a football fan and tourist, and although there were a lot of good things about the Qatar experience, it was impossible not to be taken aback by the life so many of the inhabitants lead there and the sadness that goes with it.

Since being awarded the World Cup, the country has been dogged by criticism for its treatment of low-paid migrant workers.

The poor treatment of these workers and the conditions they endure have led to deaths of many stadium workers with little or no consequences for those who exploit the migrants who came to Qatar in search of a better life for their families.

Their Kafala sponsorship system which prohibits workers from switching jobs or leaving the country without their employer's approval has been widely condemned and is set to be abolished in the coming weeks.

However, just a few months ago, Amnesty International said that workers in Qatar continue to be mistreated despite promises to improve rights, with many going unpaid.

Qatar has a population of 2.8 million people but only 10 per cent are Qatari nationals, and their lifestyle is far removed from those building and creating the World Cup dream.

During our trip we used taxis on several occasions and the drivers were friendly and open. On one journey a young man originally from India got extremely excited when he heard we were Irish. "Eoin Morgan's country, he's great," he exclaimed.

We chatted about the Cricket World Cup but our driver hadn't seen it as he has worked every day for the last 18 months and has no plans to take one off in the immediate future. He was happy that we were in the country because it brought him work and helped him reach his targets.

In Qatar it's clearly evident there are more important things in life than football.

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