Concrete, searing heat and £12 beers: inside Doha’s World Cup fan festival

Upbeat Fifa say ‘nothing is forbidden’ at vast site, but quality of experience that awaits crowds is open to question

In the tetchy heat of a Doha lunch hour, there was a welcome loosening of ties – and then, surprisingly, of tongues. It came as Fifa launched a World Cup fan festival so vast that 40,000 supporters will soon be able to congregate in shared communion near the Corniche: to watch, to cheer, to drink overpriced beer, if only between 7pm and 1am. Perhaps even to love, too.

“It will be a multidimensional, festival-like experience,” promised Gerdine Lindhout, Fifa’s head of experiential marketing and promotion. “It’s not just about football, it’s about gaming, lifestyle and amazing food. We have decided to go huge in Doha!”

But shortly afterwards, as Lindhout faced questions from the world’s media, her corporate spiel faded and she sounded more human than a Fifa official has done in decades. Asked what her message would be to those wanting to bring rainbow flags into the fan festival, she smiled. “Go for it,” she said. “This event is all about celebration.”

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The Dutchwoman was even bolder when the difficult tariff of the questions was raised. What, for instance, would you say to gay England fans who might be nervous about visiting Qatar for the tournament, which kicks off this Sunday?

“I have been coming here for the last four years and have felt not just safe but welcome,” she replied. “England fans should come here. It will be a life-changing experience.”

Given Qatar is a place where men can face five years’ imprisonment under article 296 of Qatar’s penal code for “inducing or seducing a male in any way to commit illegal or immoral actions”, and where Human Rights Watch recently detailed multiple cases of the LGBTQ+ community being beaten and imprisoned by the authorities, those words sounded like a quiet revolution.

Gerdine Lindhout, Fifa’s head of experiential marketing, talks to reporters at Al Bidda Park in Doha.
Gerdine Lindhout, Fifa’s head of experiential marketing, talks to reporters at Al Bidda Park in Doha. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

How could they not when the Qatari authorities and Fifa have tiptoed around the issue for over a decade, in what appears to amount to their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

Was it a case of Lindhout accidentally going off message? Or speaking more in hope than expectation? Perhaps. But she was talking very specifically about Fifa venues in Qatar, where it appears to be the case that the authorities will look the other way when it comes to holding hands and kissing.

Certainly when pressed again about what the experience would be like for gay fans inside Fifa venues, Lindhout could not have been clearer. “We welcome everyone, including the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.

The Fifa Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park.
The Fifa Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park in Doha as it looked on Wednesday afternoon. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“Based on the experience I have had there is no risk. They are welcome to express themselves and their love to their partners. They won’t get into trouble for sharing public displays of affection.”

Admittedly Lindhout did also urge western fans to find a middle ground between their values and those of the conservative Gulf state, which was certainly more on script. But moments later she again insisted that the culture in Qatar had changed. “Respect the culture, use your common sense but nothing is forbidden at the Fifa fan festival,” she added. “We are very proud of it.”

In truth, at 1pm on Wednesday afternoon the festival did not look like a venue poised to charge up the Tripadvisor tourist charts. At a media showcase hours before a Michael Jackson tribute act launched a test event to iron out any late teething problems, it mostly resembled a giant concrete car park with overpriced food (a tiny Greek salad cost £10, a slice of pepperoni pizza £8) and little escape from the 32C heat.

However, Lindhout dismissed fears that it might be too hot for fans. “It is definitely hot, but there are enough areas where there is a shadow and we have enough refreshing beverages so I do not see a problem,” she said. “People have to use their logical minds – and dress for the occasion. Wear your shorts, wear something light and enjoy some refreshing beverage.”

England fans will not be overwhelmed to learn that there is just one beer stand, selling Budweiser for nearly £12 for 500ml. Or that they will face a long queue reminiscent of a passport control in a European airport post-Brexit, to buy a maximum of four beers.

That said, there appears no limit on the amount of beer that can be ordered throughout the night. Which might lead to familiar problems when tensions are running high and the booze is flowing freely.

Barriers for queuing stand ready at the Fan Festival’s only place to buy beer.
Barriers for queuing stand ready at the Fan Festival’s only place to buy beer. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

However, Lindhout claimed Fifa would try to give some leeway for fans to enjoy themselves while others remained safe. “We want an experience for all fans but safety is important,” she added. “I think with the security measures in place we will be fine.”

On the plus side fans will also be able to see the World Cup and Jules Rimet trophies in the Fifa museum near the giant screen that will show the games, as well as a range of famous jerseys, including Roger Hunt’s from England’s 1966 World Cup victory and Diego Maradona’s from a 1986 warmup match.

And as the sun began to set, and 20,000 locals began to stream in to see the Michael Jackson impersonator belt out the hits, it began to feel more like a real event. Not everyone is convinced, mind. When the Guardian posted pictures of the venue on social media, several users reckoned that: “This World Cup is going to be Fyre festival and Woodstock 99 rolled into one”.

However, Mead Alemadi, who is in charge of the Fan Festival, is confident it will be an overwhelming success. “We’ve waited 12 years for this and we’re so happy to see all this happen,” he said. “People here will be having fun, looking at live matches with the best view of the Doha skyline. This will be the best festival in the history of the World Cup.”

Perhaps. But that will depend what happens inside this cavernous 300,000 square-metre venue in the next month – and that, sadly, remains an open question.


Sean Ingle in Doha

The GuardianTramp

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