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Doha fever dream: Tales from the protest World Cup

Long before Gianni Infantino’s jaw-dropping opening monologue this was always going to be a troubling celebration of the world game

In Doha the trains run on time.

At this efficient World Cup, Mbappé, Messi and Morocco drowned out external noise. Artificial sounds inside eight death stadiums ceased whenever the three Ms began to play.

Stories to be reshaped and retold; Messi torturing Joško Gvardiol, Sofyan Amrabat slide-tackling Mbappé, Moroccan migrants beating the Europeans.

World Cup moments to exist beside Pelé, Maradona, Zidane.


The mask slips clean off when the World Cup pauses for two days after the group stages.

“Death is a natural part of life, whether it is at work, whether it is in your sleep,” said Qatar’s chief executive Nasser Al-Khater, when asked about ‘Alex,’ a Filipino national who died while working at the Sealine resort, Saudi Arabia’s training base in Mesaieed.

So valued he is mononym. Within 24 hours the family of Abdullah Ibhais accused the Qatar authorities of torturing the father of two.

“Abdullah was trying to showcase Qatar in its best light, to own up to its mistakes, and to do right by them and all the migrant workers who have suffered as a result,” said the Jordanian family of a whistleblower who worked inside Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, until sentenced to three years in jail for bribery and misuse of funds. “Fifa is complicit in Abdullah’s imprisonment and Fifa’s silence is tearing apart our family.”

Qatar denies the claim that Ibhais was tortured, insisting he was convicted on “an abundance of strong and credible evidence”. Besides a retracted confession, none of this evidence has been released into the public domain.

Four migrant workers perished during this World Cup, which is one more than the Qataris initially claimed perished in the building of eight stadiums over 12 years of construction.

Or, as Amnesty International insists, 12 years of slavery.

Tuesday, November 8th

A shaky start. World Cup ambassador Khalid Salman informs German television that homosexuality is “damage in the mind”.

The interview is cut short.

“Everyone is welcome in Qatar,” insists the World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, “but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon. We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”

Argentinians and Brazilians, the British, all Europeans, Asians, Australians and Saudi Arabians refuse to respect the Qatari culture. Not for one second, not in Souq Waqif, not at games.

This was a World Cup of contradictions. Grotesque wealth propped upon abject poverty.

One of the cruelest aspects of the tournament was access. The country that owns Al Jazeera and BeIN Sport blocked its lowest earners from sitting at home to watch the tournament. It cost $220 to stream the World Cup. Free to air BeIN Arabic teased matches, showing kick-offs before flashing back to studio.

The Uber drivers has three separate apps to see games as they zipped from Corniche to West Bay. Many only became taxi men for the month as building sites and universities were shuttered. Same goes for the children of Doha, denied formal education while the World Cup played out on subscription TV.

Kids could wander into Fanzones, but 10pm kick-offs saw off most, but not the Moroccans who wheeled babies into Souqs and squares. The North Africans and Saudis made this an Arab World Cup, crossing the land border in their droves.

Saturday, November 19th

Gianni Infantino dog whistles. “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker.”

Monica Marks, professor of Middle East politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, offers supposition around Infantino’s true intention.

“Infantino’s spiel showcases multiple rhetorical tricks of what we might term the ‘deploying anti-Orientalism as a cudgel to squash substantive critiques of power’ trade,” Prof Marks tweets. “These rhetorical sleights of hand are especially insidious because they can so easily zombify would-be brilliant critics on the left, including academics and journalists, some of whom unwittingly enter into weird weddings with the abusive, corrupt and powerful in MENA when those actors cry Orientalism.

“I can’t step inside the bloke’s head, but his deflections were so risible I see two options: 1. He knowingly used anti-colonialist discourses to deflect critique from Qatar and, by extension, himself and Fifa. 2. He’s guzzled Kool-Aid to rationalise his work and genuinely believes it.”

Within 48 hours, Greek MEP Evan Kaili utters the exact same pro-Qatari rhetoric in Brussels before her arrest December 9th on charges of money laundering, corruption and criminal organisation.

“I am sitting here on the global stage as a gay man here in Qatar,” says Fifa director of media relations Bryan Swanson following Infantino’s speech. “We have received assurances that everyone will be welcome at this World Cup.”

Penny for Swanson’s thoughts when a gay English fan is strip-searched for wearing rainbow colours in Doha, while Palestinian flags are waved by the Moroccan players (both legitimate forms of protest in a free society).

This was not the Qatar World Cup, it was the south Asian and central African World Cup. They ran the tournament, along with Nepalese servers and Filipino maids, but without a trade union to protect them. Without a Mick Lynch-figure to fight their corner on Al Jazeera, no ruling monarchy or government can be kept in check.

Sunday, November 20th

On opening night Morgan Freeman asks: “Am I welcome?”

“We sent out the call because everyone is welcome,” replies Ghanim Al-Muftah. “This is an invitation to the whole world.”

Qatari’s defunct female football team, without caps since 2014, quietly disagrees.

“How can so many countries, languages, and cultures come together, if only one way is accepted?”

Exactly, Freeman, exactly.

Large swathes of the 67,372 attendance Land Rover to safety at half-time of Qatar versus Ecuador, leaving bussed-in Lebanese in Qatari maroon to chant inanely.

Earlier, at the Protest World Cup, Iran captain Ehsan Hajsafi treads dangerous ground by supporting “all of the bereaved families in Iran” who have suffered under the ongoing Islamic Republic’s violent repression of female rights.

Monday, November 21st

England 6 Iran 2. Inside the Khalifa International stadium, Persians howl and wail at their own national anthem, as the players refuse to sing.

In stark contrast, Harry Kane, along with six other European captains, abandon the One Love armband, designed to support LGBTQ+ rights, for fear of receiving a yellow card.

Roy Keane on ITV: “The players could have done it for the first game, Kane and Bale, take your yellow card, take the punishment, what a message that would have been. I think it was a big mistake by both players, they should have stuck to their guns, if that’s what you believe then go with it.”

American soccer writer Grant Wahl is detained for 25 minutes by security outside Ahmad bin Ali Stadium for wearing a rainbow T-shirt. “I’m OK, but that was an unnecessary ordeal,” Wahl tweets. “Go gays.”

Tuesday, November 22nd

Swanson’s assurances ring hollow as a Viking helmeted fan in One Love armband and rainbow socks is denied entry to Denmark versus Tunisia.

Keane: “The World Cup shouldn’t be here. The corruption regarding Fifa, the way this country treats migrant workers and gay people. They shouldn’t have the World Cup here, you can’t treat people like that. It’s not right, it shouldn’t be here.”

Thursday, November 24th

Light in the darkness. Ken Early’s ‘I’ve had a few Budweiser’ podcast, live from The Oasis pub, enters the zeitgeist.

Friday, November 25th

“Woman, Life, Freedom” flags are snatched off Iranian fans at the Wales game in Ahmed bin Ali stadium.

Monday, November 28th

Walking out of The 974 stadium, after Brazil 1 Switzerland 0, we enter a glitzy hotel to watch Uruguay versus Portugal. The young English woman at reception, with heavy eyelids, sings a familiar tune: “You need an exit strategy in Doha, once you have achieved what you came for, you leave.” Others, like our Afghan Uber driver, can never leave. We cough up €100 for five beers.

BBC versus Qatar’s Supreme Committee

“I used to look up to Gary Lineker growing up,” Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the SC, tells Talk Sport, “so for me it is very disappointing that Gary, I say it openly, never bothered to engage. We reached out three or four times in February. At least hear us out. There was never a desire to listen to our part of the story.”

Lineker replies on Twitter: “Well, this is news to me. Neither my agent nor myself received any request to engage with anyone involved with Qatar 2022. I have my weaknesses, but I’m not that rude. Very odd.”

The BBC tells The Athletic they do not “dispute there was ongoing contact” for a meeting with Al-Thawadi but says it was unable to find “a date to suit all parties”.

Enter Piers Morgan, asking Al-Thawadi if it is safe for gay people to be in Qatar?

“It’s safe for everybody. Unequivocally Piers, yes.”

And safe for gay people to live in Qatar?

“Yes. I think it’s safe for everybody to live in Qatar, Piers.”

What if a gay couple showed demonstrable displays of affection?

“Public displays of affection are generally not part of our culture. Regardless of who you are, regardless of your sexual identification and so on, public displays of affection are not, and I say that within reason. Holding hands in the streets is fine.”

For gay people?

“Holding hands in the streets for anybody is fine.”

It is?

“What I’m saying is public intimacy is not part of our culture.”

Evidently, Al-Thawadi has never been to Asian Town, where men lock fingers and embrace in the shade. And see Achraf Hakimi, a devout Muslim, climbing into the Al Thumama stand to embrace his mother, who showers him with kisses, after Morocco’s victory over Belgium.

“What we try to do is find common ground,” he adds. “We might not see eye to eye but we have to find a way of coexisting and moving forward.”

A burly American is manhandled out of the Iran game for wearing a rainbow armband. He is released and returns to his seat when a Danish camera crew starts filming the arrest. The police turn away, confused. Until this circus packs up, homosexuality is a grey area.

“We are a relatively conservative culture. In the West the individual’s personal rights always trump, let’s say, the community rights,” Al-Thawadi explains. “That’s what is most sacred. But there are other societies, the Arab world being one of them, in the Middle East, it is the communal values, which is fundamentally related to religion, that is of a higher value, of higher importance.”

One of these community values relates to female rights. In Qatar, if a woman is raped yet the man claims it is consensual sex, as was the case with a Dutch woman in 2016 and a Mexican World Cup employee in 2021, she can be charged with the crime of extramarital sex. Both women were found guilty of zina, the law that criminalises unmarried sex. Both escaped the country.

Tuesday, November 29th

BBC Persian shows an Iranian gasping for air on the ground outside Al Thumama, held by a police officer’s knee on his upper back, screaming: “woman, life, freedom.”

Wednesday, November 30th

Qatar remains a land of opportunity, a gateway to other realms. My Ghanaian friend Nasser is living proof. Next year the 24-year-old will receive a three-month visa to visit New York, where his sisters and brothers live, and come 2024 he can get a four-year visa for the US, when he intends to “find a wife, and start a family”.

“Qatar has given me that opportunity. Because Africans don’t just get visas into the US, but coming from Qatar, where there is no crime, they know you are clean.

“You work the system,” he adds, “because you got to live your life and Qatar is not living, it’s only about getting someplace else. There is no life here. Just a chance to make money.

“I own this car now,” he slaps the steering wheel, “it was paid off inside two years, a full tank costs [€15] so I’ll sell it to pay my flight to New York.”

Thursday, December 1st

ITV presenter Mark Pougatch, strolling down the marina, shows early signs of Stockholm syndrome.

“A one city World Cup is really not such a bad idea ... halfway through one is beginning to feel a bit conflicted as we know exactly what is going on off the pitch, we have discussed it, but the experience here – I have to be absolutely fair – it is very calm, it flows well ... this World Cup is going quite smoothly.”

Sunday, December 4th

Arsène Wegner guzzles the Kool-Aid. “Dressed in Fifa robes, suggesting the teams that focused on ‘competition’ over ‘political demonstrations’ had better starts to the tournament is total bulls**t,” writes Kevin Kilbane. “What has happened to the once profound Arsenal manager? What has he become?”

Monday, December 5th

We have a stupid idea, to make a picture diary of my day for family back home. It starts well. Rooftop pool. Metro. But walking into the media centre I snap the “entrance” sign above the security hut.

The police man scanning my accreditation asks to see the photo. I show it to him. He pulls me aside and calls his superior. He is young, strong, intimating.

“Delete it.”

Why, because you are in the background?

“Delete it.”

I delete it. And ask why again, saying I’m taking pictures of most things I see.

“You’ve taken other pictures of police in Qatar?”


He moves his hand to his belt. His superior takes my phone as a discussion in Arabic ensues. The younger man appears to be in command. I guess what he’s saying and delete the deleted photos section of my phone, and ask him why again.

“There is no why in Qatar. We say, you do.”


“Where are you from?”


He’s losing his temper, so I offer my hand. We shake. The situation cools as I am scanned and processed.

At half-time in the Japan versus Croatia quarter-final in Al Janoub, Brian McFadden and Keith Duffy perform on the pitch as BoyzLife.

Tuesday, December 6th

“Joseph’s labour camp has no name,” writes Sam Kunti for Josimar-Football. “It’s not on Google maps, and yet it sits in plain sight, wedged between spectator entrances and the endless facilities that come with a mammoth ground that will host the World Cup final.”

Fakhreddine Derouich, a Moroccan security guard working at Spain versus Morocco, glances over his shoulder to see Hakimi’s panenka, letting out a roar before bursting into tears, covering his face, breathing deep and getting on with monitoring the crowd.

Wednesday, December 7th

Two migrant workers I speak with regularly – an Indian door man and Filipino waitress working non-stop 10 hour shifts – are so exhausted they can barely stand up. Both in their 20s, they looked older every day. Miguel Delaney, writing in the London Independent, feels “there are moments when it is difficult not think this is what elements of the American deep south must have been like during slavery”.

Thursday, December 8th

As the Tory press accuses Mick Lynch of “trying to destroy Christmas”, I cannot stop thinking about Sean Ingle’s line in The Guardian about Abdullah. “Ibhais says he was jailed after raising concerns that the Supreme Committee planned to deny that World Cup workers were involved in a strike of between 4,000 and 6,000 people in Doha. He says he found 200 workers in Education City Stadium and Al Bayt Stadium that had no drinking water and had not been paid for four months.”

Friday, December 9th

Two workers die at Argentina versus the Netherlands. Kenyan security guard John Njau Kibue falls from the Lusail concourse and American soccer writer Grant Wahl dies in the press box, suffering an ascending aortic aneurysm as the penalty shoot-out begins.

“We want answers on the circumstances of his death,” Anne Wanjiru, Kibue’s sister, tells the Standard newspaper in Nairobi. “They are claiming he was intoxicated. We hear he had worked for long hours. The clarity of how he fell is not coming out. We don’t know where to start. It is very painful – they should help us.”

On December 12th, Wahl’s body lands on US soil. “Our sincere gratitude to everyone involved in repatriating Grant, in particular the White House, the US Department of State, Fifa, US Soccer and American Airlines,” writes his wife Dr Céline Gouner. “An autopsy was performed by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. There was nothing nefarious about his death.”

Saturday, December 10th

France 2 England 1

Monday, December 12th

“Fifa’s egregious whitewashing of serious abuses against migrant workers in Qatar is both a global embarrassment and a sinister tactic to escape its human rights responsibility to compensate thousands of workers who faced abuse and the families of those who died to make this World Cup possible,” said Tirana Hassan, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Fifa continues to cash in on billions of dollars in revenue but refuses to offer a single cent for the families of migrant workers who died or those workers who were cheated out of their wages.”

Tuesday, December 13th

Light in the darkness. Sofia Martinez, the Argentinian interviewer, makes Messi smile after his tour-de-force against Croatia: “The World Cup final is coming and sure, we [Argentinians] all want to win the cup but I just want to tell you that no matter the results, there’s something that no one can take from you, and it’s the fact that, truly, you made your mark in everyone’s life. That’s more important than winning a World Cup, you already have us.”

Wednesday, December 14th

“It is not usually this quiet,” says Sariff, our Bangladeshi Uber driver as we leave Asian Town, the industrial area where workers live in sandstone blocks beside a cricket arena and shopping mall. “[The car park] is where everyone gathers, when they return.”

The mirage ends soon. Asian town still bustles with young men sending money home via western Union.

“After the World Cup road works and construction begins again.”

The real Doha begins again.