AFTER savoring every last drop of my 13-pound stash at Qatar’s Champions Bar, it was game time.
With less than 100 days to go before the World Cup kicks off, I was on my way to the air-conditioned Khalifa International Stadium where England will play Iran in the opening game of the competition on November 21st.
When you bring Doha’s plush underground into the 45,416-seat arena, the cultural differences with the West become clear.
A local took me away from a central carriage where he explained that single men were forbidden.
The metro here has three classes — standard: family, for women, children, and accompanying men; and the lavishly padded gold.
Drinking in public is banned — except in top-notch hotels and restaurants — so eating tin cans on the way to a game is out. This is also a country where e-cigarettes are banned and swearing and obscene gestures can land you behind bars.
Fatma Al-Nuaimi – from the Supreme Committee of the World Cup – told me: “We just ask people to respect the local culture.”
So how will this tiny desert kingdom the size of Yorkshire cope with up to 1.3 million fervent football fans arriving in three months?
To find out, I’ve spent this week in Qatar, at road testing facilities and barbecue organizers in a nation whose poor human rights record is under scrutiny.
Go through syrup
My dummy run to the Khalifa – where local teams Umm Salal and Al Sadd played a 1-1 draw – suggests the transport and stadiums will surpass many previous World Cups.
Upon entering the metro in downtown Doha, security guards in white shirts and dark pants huddled around giant air conditioners to brave the August heat.
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Outside it was a claustrophobic 42°C (November temperatures were expected to drop to the mid to high 20s) with stuffy humidity that made every step feel like a walk through syrup.
It was a comfortable 26°C in the ground as 500 nozzles poured out cold air.
Earlier, I had visited a Nasa-like World Cup nerve center where banks of cyberworkers remotely monitor all eight World Cup stadiums.
Chief Technology Officer Niyas Abdulrahim explained that the temperature in the stadiums can be adjusted depending on the number of spectators.
And he revealed that fans are being monitored Big Brother style, with 15,000 cameras in stadiums and more in fan zones. Standing in front of a row of computers and monitors, Niyas said anyone misbehaving could be identified.
We have special high definition cameras to zoom in on a specific seat and see the viewer clearly.
Chief Technology Officer Niyas Abdulrahim
He revealed: “We have special high definition cameras to zoom in on a specific seat and see the spectator clearly. It’s being recorded, which will help us with our investigations.”
No decision on the Covid rules for the World Cup has been announced. Masks are currently worn in public and UK travelers are required to have a negative PCR test before flying.
And Qatar has yet to confirm its alcohol consumption plans, with the Supreme Committee’s Fatma Al-Nuaimi saying alcohol will be available “in designated areas”.
She added that events like the Club World Cup in the country in 2019 – won by Liverpool – had been a successful run. “We received Liverpool fans in a fan zone where alcohol was served before and after the game,” she said.
The staggering alcohol prices in Qatar’s licensed hotel bars and restaurants are not replicated in the fan zones. A source on the organizing committee assured me that backers can give for around £5.
Shining Doha – a city of steel and glass rising out of the desert – will host a massive World Cup party along its four-mile waterfront Corniche promenade.
Rumor has it that England’s pranksters are staying the night on a luxury cruise ship, moored in the warm waters of the Gulf, where they can enjoy a glass of bubbly.
Her other halves check in at the arid five-star beach resort of Souq Al Wakra, ten miles up the coast. When I visited this week, the attentive staff offered a golf buggy ride from reception to the hotel’s decent restaurant to brave the scorching heat.
Lamb couscous cooked in a clay pot costs £15, while signature drinks include the tomato-juice based How Bazaar, a bargain at £7.
England manager Gareth Southgate has chosen a location that allows his players to immerse themselves in local life.
While downtown Doha resembles London’s Canary Wharf in a sandstorm, the honey-colored maze of low-rise streets at Al Wakra has a Middle Eastern charm.
Next to the hotel rises the minaret of a mosque and there’s a children’s park with two camels that might prove irresistible for a photo op in England. On the other side of the hotel, a beachfront path leads to a maze of shops and cafes in the souk, or street market.
The back of the hotel opens directly onto golden sandy beaches and the lapping waves of the Arabian Gulf.
Wales will stay at Doha’s brand new five-star Delta City Center hotel, due to open in October. Fans can experience their own 1001 nights and sleep in beach camps.
I did a hair-raising 4×4 sand dune tour south of Doha, where Bedouins wait to offer camel rides and falconry displays. Luxurious glamping tents nestle against the coast at Regency Sealine Camp. Weekday prices start from around £190.
I later met Omar al-Jaber, whose job it is to find shelter for more than a million World Cup fans. He revealed that a “caravan town” is being built in central Doha, starting at around £120 a night per mobile home, to ease the burden.
Omar insists there is still plenty of accommodation available to British fans who have not yet booked. The cheapest are apartments near Al Janoub Stadium for under £70 a night.
Other options include Portakabin-style buildings for £170 a night and two luxury cruise ships – MSC Poesia and MSC World Europa – which will be docked at Doha’s Grand Terminal.
The liners have swimming pools, spas and a range of restaurants, with prices starting at around £150 per night. England superfan Brian Wright and four friends have booked 22 nights on a cruise ship.
Brian, 51, who has attended more than 370 Three Lions games and is heading towards his eighth World Cup, said: “We booked ahead of the draw and we’re only paying £60 a night.”
We booked before the draw and only pay £60 a night.
English superfan Brian Wright
British fans need to familiarize themselves with local customs and laws in a conservative Islamic nation.
Coventry City fan Brian added: “No matter which country I visit, I respect their laws and abide by them. It’s not going to stop me from having a damn good time.”
Scanners at Doha airport spot anyone attempting to smuggle alcohol or drugs into the country.
Qatar really isn’t a place where you want to get in trouble with the law. According to the US State Department, in 2019 there were 375 cases of court-ordered flogging for various crimes.
The last known Brit to receive the penalty was Gavin Sherrard-Smith of Cheltenham, Gloucs. He was flogged 50 times with a bamboo cane in 1993 after being found guilty of selling alcohol to a Muslim.
Gavin, who denied the allegations, said: “The last ten punches were agony, bloody agony. I thought I was going to pass out.”
Qatari organizers have assured me that everyone is welcome to the tournament – yet the LGBTQ+ Travel Safety Index ranks the nation 190th in the world.
Homosexuality is illegal here and is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Some staff from the Welsh team, as well as members of Rainbow Wall – their official LGBTQ+ support group – will boycott the tournament over the country’s stance on gay rights.
Built on sweat and blood
Nasser Al-Khori from the organizing committee told me: “When it comes to LGBT, everyone is welcome as long as there are restrictions on PDA (public displays of affection).
“There are things that are culturally acceptable and things that aren’t. Everyone is welcome at the World Cup.”
Public intimacy between any couple, regardless of gender, can result in arrest.
The gleaming stadiums and other infrastructure that have grown out of the sand were built on the sweat – and sometimes blood – of an army of occasionally abused migrant workers.
Qataris said they responded by improving health and safety and revising labor laws for migrants.
Spokeswoman Fatma Al-Nuaimi said the changes “will be the true social legacy that the World Cup will leave behind”.
As the sun dips below the horizon, Doha sparkles in a kaleidoscope of lights and chrome.
The World Championships in the desert will certainly be a tournament like no other.