Tuesday night, Ahmad Bin Ali stadium, and my seventh game in five days at the 2022 World Cup. At half-time I run to the bathroom, re-emerging to hear the 1991 classic, The One and the Only, thumping out across the stadium. It doesn’t sound quite right, and then I realise that there, on the touchline, is Chesney Hawkes himself banging out his one hit wonder. Qatar 2022, weird at every turn.
The next morning, having cheered England into the knockout stages, I get a taxi at 5am to the airport. Mohammed, the driver, is cheery despite the hour, telling me how, at the end of the tournament, he is heading home to Bangladesh. He’s taking with him his six-month-old son, born in Qatar, to meet his grandparents for the first time. Later, when I board my flight to Dublin I sit next to a couple with a small child.
They tell me they are nurses working in the West of Ireland, and are just returning from India, having taken their six-month-old son to meet his grandparents for the first time. The ebb and flow of migrant workers, far from home with children growing up under a different flag, is a global constant.
And that is what’s most striking about Qatar, the sheer range of nationalities working there. I met Uber drivers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (always more interested in talking about the recent T20 Cricket World Cup than the soccer), security guards from Kenya and Senegal, waiters from Korea, Thailand, China and Uruguay. At the stadium seemingly thousands of workers from across the world guide fans through turnstiles, into seats, out of the ground and into the newly built metro system.
The ban on alcohol sales in the stadiums was attacked by the European media as if soccer without beer would be nothing. But Qatar is, after all, a Muslim country, a religion it shares with a quarter of the world’s population. If soccer is, as Fifa tells us, the global game, then it must reflect all the world’s peoples. If the host is Muslim, why then should we demand they forgo their beliefs and serve us beer at every turn?
The games I attended, including the stellar Moroccan victory over Belgium, were none the worse for a lack of pints (which were readily available at every hotel in Doha). Indeed, watching the passion of the joyful Moroccans (a Muslim country that must host the World Cup soon) it was evident that these fans didn’t need beer to lose themselves in support for their country.
The England games I watched, as well as Germany versus Spain were oddly stilted affairs begging the question that us Europeans can’t get into a soccer match unless we’re beer soaked before arrival.
The stadiums were stunning, and everything in terms of transit (except for the Al Bayt stadium, an hour north of Doha, for which the metro line wasn’t completed) was slick and efficient. The food, a mix of burgers and hot dogs alongside spinach fatayer and chicken shawarma, could be taken with all the Budweiser Zero you could stomach. And the stadiums were always cool, even at the afternoon games, given the massive air conditioning throughout.
There was no segregation of fans and everyone was friendly and engaged in chat no matter any language barriers. Given the large number of tickets that had been taken up by locals, there were whole family groups in attendance, often, and unusually, with small babies in tow. And alongside them migrant workers decked out in the colours of whatever team they had chosen to support, facetiming themselves and the game back to homes across the globe.
The number of women in attendance was high, and those wearing national jerseys were as apparent as others in hijabs and the traditional full-length dress of an Abaya.
Having all eight stadiums in one city meant that going to two games a day was easy. So, rather than traipsing around a large country, seeing one game every few days, and mixing with only a few sets of supporters, dashing from ground to ground to catch another game each day was a bonus. And throughout the city the fans from all 32 competing nations happily mixed, something that will be logistically impossible in 2026 when the tournament is spread across Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
It is now common knowledge that the path to Qatar 2022 was corrupt. This also entailed unforgivable acts of human rights abuse and loss of life. Dominant local customs and faith responses that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people as well as women are offensive to many European countries where these often-precarious rights are currently secure.
But as a tournament the Qatar World Cup seems to be running smoothly and delivering to those in attendance – hugely middle class by virtue of the costs involved – a feast of soccer (though I think we can agree the 10 second countdown before kick off is best consigned to the bin). Qatar speaks to the geopolitics that are the reality of a global organisation like Fifa.
Europe, and the European way of going to the match should not be the sole global template for the game. The World Cup will, and hopefully under a more transparent process, return to countries of the Middle East and venture into the northern countries of the continent of Africa in the future. When it does, we will again have to forget the beer, embrace a different culture, and perhaps the global game will be better for it.
Professor Mike Cronin is the Academic Director of Boston College in Ireland and has written extensively on the history of sport and its function in contemporary society