Fans, fun, fireworks: Qatar World Cup 2022 enjoys rare normality | Sean Ingle

Matches kick off with fan zones looking like construction sites, persistent fears over how gay fans will be treated and concerns over human rights abuses

If this World Cup finally has a pulse, it was first detected on Doha’s Corniche shortly after 6pm on Saturday, as an adrenalised version of Seven Nation Army segued into a We Are the Champions cover with enough distorted bass to make ear drums bleed.

At that moment hundreds of fans at Fifa’s fan festival – particularly from Mexico, Argentina, Wales and Tunisia – pushed their hands recklessly into the air, while thousands of curious locals watched and waved mobile phones.

Squint hard enough, and those shiny brochure claims about this World Cup being a bridge between east and west due to a shared love of football no longer appeared so fetched. And an hour later, the buzz was even further enhanced by a spectacular and sustained barrage of fireworks before the words “Welcome to Qatar” lit up the Doha skyline and a concert by the Colombian music superstar Maluma began.

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People cheered. People smiled. And a World Cup that has lurched from criticism to controversy and back again ever since it was awarded to Qatar in 2010 briefly appeared to acquire something new: a tinge of normality.

It is likely to prove a mirage, at least for now. There are too many concerns and too few supporters compared with a normal tournament for that, despite Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s bullish claims on Saturday that bringing the World Cup to Qatar had sped up the pace of reform there.

Infantino pointed to the abolition of the kafala worker sponsorship system and the introduction of a minimum wage of £231 a month before promising he had received reassurances that the rights of gay people would be respected, at least during the World Cup.

But Rasha Younes of Human Rights Watch, who has revealed a number of cases of violence by the Qatari authorities against LGBTQ+ people in the country, told the Observer that far more needed to be done to reinforce such protection.

“Fifa has been pretty conservative in its approach to workers and LGBT rights and the rights of women,” she said. “And it doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of its responsibility and role in this sporting world, especially in countries such as Qatar with a dismal human rights record.”

What has also long been clear is that this World Cup will be a discombobulating combination of the opulent and the opaque. How could it not when an eye-watering $200bn has reportedly been spent on the tournament, about 20 times more than the last edition in Russia? And when, at the same time, so much remains unspoken? No Qatari official has yet given reassurances that gay fans will not be punished if they kiss. And fans who sink a few alcoholic drinks still don’t know where the boundary will be between over-exuberance and arrest.

True, the stadiums look magnificent, with ground-breaking air conditioning technology inside the grounds ensuring that players and fans will experience temperatures of 22C rather than in the low 30s, which should mean the standard of football is high too.

Yet questions remain about other parts of the infrastructure. How could it be right, for instance, that with only a few hours left until the tournament kicked off, with the host nation playing Ecuador at the Al Bayt stadium , several fan villages still resembled construction sites?

When the Observer visited the Radat Al Jahhaniya fan village, which will house hundreds of England and Wales supporters, there were still piles of rubble and sand strewn everywhere, along with pieces of industrial machinery.

Meanwhile, it remains to be sene how a country the size of Yorkshire can cope with an expected influx of more than 1 million people, which will inevitably put pressure on the metro and the extra police that have been flown in from Turkey and Pakistan.

A fan festival site at Al Bidda Park, pictured earlier this week.
A fan festival site at Al Bidda Park, pictured earlier this week. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

However Wales supporters John Fraser, and his sons Barry and John Jr, said they had been pleasantly surprised by their early experiences in Qatar so far.

“The atmosphere has been amazing,” said John Jr. “The only difference between this and other tournaments has been the lack of alcohol. We heard the warnings to be careful, but we were sunbathing on the beach earlier and had no problems.

The family, from Barry in Wales, said they were paying £37 a night in what they called “very basic accommodation”.

“But we knew what we were getting,” said Barry, smiling. “And it’s not too bad. Clearly a lot of money has been spent here and everywhere we go people are smiling and being friendly.”

They acknowledged that they were aware of problems with workers and LGBTQ+ rights, which they said had led to some of their friends not travelling. But for them, at least, football trumped everything else.

“At the end of the day Wales are not likely to get to a World Cup again in my lifetime,” said John Sr, ”so you have to make the most of it.

“It was always going to be controversial because of Qatar’s stance on some things but we are here to celebrate togetherness and football,” he added.

Meanwhile despite being beset by criticism from all sides, Fifa president Infantino is confident that the handwringing by refuseniks and human rights supporters will fade into the background once the first ball is kicked.

“It’s like in these polls we have seen very recently,” he said. “In some countries they say it’s bad to watch the World Cup because it’s in Qatar and it’s Fifa, and look this bad guy. But privately when they go home, of course they watch it.”

Warming to his theme, he added: “Because when you’re a football fan, there’s nothing bigger than the World Cup. We will have 5 billion people watching it. Those who watch it, officially and privately, they will see the best football ever and they will see the biggest emotions ever.”

And when Infantino gave the familiar promise that we were about to experience the greatest tournament in history, it was possible to detect a twinkle in his eye.

“Doha is ready,” he proclaimed. “And this will be the best World Cup ever. And the magic of football is that as soon as the ball rolls people concentrate on the game. Because that is what people want.”

The stark reality, as we all know, is that Infantino will no doubt be proved right.


Sean Ingle in Doha

The GuardianTramp

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