Booze bans, grim rooms for fans at inflated prices and Big Brother spy cameras… what the World Cup will REALLY be like for supporters – SPECIAL REPORT FROM QATAR
- England fans are set for a drastic change in culture during the Qatar World Cup
- Fans can stay in hotels, tents, or metal buildings being branded as cabins
- Supporters are unlikely to be able to buy alcohol at off-licenses in the country
- Extreme measures have been taken to ensure crowds are controlled throughout
Harry Kane will never have known projection like it — a 30ft image of the England captain is wrapped around a glass skyscraper in central Doha.
It makes him a dominant part of the visual landscape on the road to the World Cup media centre, where every single pre-match press conference will be held during the tournament.
He’s not the only one. Luis Suarez, Luka Modric, Virgil van Dijk and Sadio Mane are among the 13 players also ‘wrapped’ around buildings. One from each competing nation should follow between now and November 20, if image rights approval can be secured.
The World Cup and its stars are being paraded like never before by a host country. The players are pictured everywhere, as is the tournament slogan, ‘Now is all’.
But behind the razzmatazz, how prepared is this tiny nation for an influx of one million fans? And what will the experience be like for supporters?
Captain Harry Kane is the poster boy for England ahead of the Qatar World Cup this winter
England supporters heading to Qatar are set for a differing experience to home life
It’s World Cup fever from the moment you board a Qatar Airways plane. Robert Lewandowski and Neymar feature in the on-board safety video. The pillows state: ‘Football is passion.’
Hamad International Airport has a smooth efficiency, with a Metro station at Terminal 2 linking the network’s red line to central Doha. The Metro has stops within a 10-minute walk of five of the eight stadiums, including Khalifa International, where England start against Iran, and Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, where Wales play all three group games.
But beware jumping on the wrong carriage: some are family and women-only. For the first time, any fan with a ticket to a game can ride the host country’s Metro for free, by waving the all-important Hayya Card app — which must be secured to get visa access to the country and to matches.
The Uber network is effective, though supply will be severely tested. In an attempt to get traffic off the frequently gridlocked roads, Qatar has designated the month of the tournament a school holiday.
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions will kick off their campaign against Iran on November 21
Where to stay?
It’s a chaotic, last-minute race to make rooms available and this a source of real concern to the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA). The main hotels in Doha have had 80 per cent of their rooms taken from them by FIFA, who have been marketing them.
But a number of hoteliers say that when they get the unsold ones back — at the end of the month — their priority will be their oil and gas industry customers, who install their rig workers in them.
Many of the cheapest £70-a-night villa and apartments have gone and though 20,000 more rooms are expected to become available in the next few weeks, there is a big rush to get them finished in time.
There’s been a huge demand for November 24 and 25, the early days of the tournament, so the FSA say anyone still looking to book for the entire two weeks should consider splitting bookings by moving from location to location during the tournament. This might help keep costs down.
The Qataris have just announced that local people will be allowed to let out their own villas to international fans. There’s very little under £200 a night on Airbnb.
There are 20 properties on booking.com for the first three nights of the tournament. Many different contractors are building the facilities. That appears to be contributing to the challenges of getting a clear picture of what will be ready and when. Qatar says there will be 100,000 rooms available on any one night.
A tented village, ‘Al Khor Camp’ which is one of the official accommodation options, was still under construction when Sportsmail visited 10 days ago and is being built out into the desert, on a dead-end road, 40 minutes north by car from central Doha.
We see square canvas dwellings that campers would walk into, rather than Glastonbury-style tents.
Security officials guard it fiercely but tell us that there will be beds in the tents, a communal swimming pool, gym, tennis courts and air conditioning. Small wooden food kiosks are already built.
Much of the area that will be used for the World Cup in Qatar is still under construction
One will sell Egyptian and Lebanese ‘koshari and falafel’. Another is the ‘Blue Mountain Cafe’. Qatar says 1,000 ‘Bedouin-style’ tents will be pitched. The cheapest being marketed at Al Khor is the ‘Deluxe King Tent for two’, which is spacious with wardrobes and a flat-screen TV but is a cool £365 a night.
Fans will have to make their own entertainment up there and that won’t include alcohol, though the complex is built on the Al Farkiah beach. It’s only a few miles from the Al Bayt stadium, where England play USA. There is also to be a Caravan City, run by a company called Asco Trading.
…Or cabin fever
The tents certainly look a great deal more appealing than the ‘cabins’ that the World Cup organisers are offering.
The artists’ impressions show communal areas but when Sportsmail visits the site — again, very much still under construction — we find row upon row of soulless metal buildings in shades of yellow, pink and turquoise on a desert site at Ras Bu Fontas inside the ‘Free Zone’ off the airport road.
Soulless metal buildings are being advertised as cabins for fans that will stay in the country
A hand-painted sign suggests it will be called ‘The Al Wakra Camp’ but it’s more like a PoW camp with vast numbers of 10-cabin blocks positioned in rows which run for a quarter of a mile.
The artists’ impressions show arches of topiary at the entry to the walkways between each row but this place, built out near the main Hamad International Airport, feels like a place to get away from.
The cabins we saw were still shells, with a bedroom and shower. The starting price of 740 Qatari Riyal (£176) seems a lot for these rudimentary huts.
It’s unclear, either through online images or our investigations, whether the toilets are communal. It is thought that 3,500 more of these may come online via the official Qatar Accommodation Agency.
Life on the ocean?
Two cruise ships will arrive to house fans in Doha Port. The MSC World Europa cruise ship, with its 1,900 cabins, is due to depart from France in October and will be joined by the MSC Poesia the following month.
Between them, they will provide 3,898 cabins, 45 bars and 10 dining facilities. They are not cheap. Minimum price £530 a night. But they do throw a buffet breakfast in.
It is thought that there are plans to secure a third cruise ship. The vessel is available but there have been problems with the logistics of mooring it, which it is hoped will be resolved.
Many fans have decided to base themselves in Dubai. Argentina fans — always the life and soul — will arrive from South America on their own cruise liner.
Construction is still taking place with the start of the tournament now just two months away
On the Waterfront
The best of Doha for fans is the beautiful four-mile waterfront promenade, or Corniche, on the fringe of the Arabian Sea, which is clearly being lined up as a major congregating place.
It has been widened and landscaped, with a turquoise cycle track installed. The race to get things ready is last-minute here, too. It’s the Qatari way. Workers had hosepipes turned on sections of brown, sun-parched grass when we visited.
They were also toiling to complete the task of laying paving stones, setting lights into them, and finishing underpasses linking the walkway with Doha’s historic Souk, with its narrow walkways, market and restaurants.
Temporary seating was being created in the Souk, too. This is also where it is anticipated that many Argentinians, Spaniards, Australians, English and Welsh can mix, eat and digest football.
The excellent cheese and honey Qatari pancakes usually sell at £1.50 and Majboos (chicken curry and rice) for £5. Great, cheap local delicacies but the Souk is very small. It will be an extreme squeeze.
Simaisma will serve as a base camp for the Mexican team during the month-long tournament
Doha’s beach area, which is four miles long, is being touted as one of the main attractions
Doha’s problem is that there’s not much culture — or indeed much at all — in this largely barren moonscape. So they’re going to throw the kitchen sink at it and will borrow heavily from Glastonbury.
They’ve recruited British festival creators Arcadia, shipping in the 50-tonne fire-breathing spider, made from a decommissioned crane at Bristol’s Avonmouth docks, which has bewitched Glastonbury festival goers for a decade now and was back in Somerset this summer. There will be live shows and DJs.
But like so much of the tournament backdrop, there are still very few details. No one has announced for how long and at which time of the day the Glasto event will run.
While areas of the country are impressive, others currently lack culture and character
But one well-placed source suggests that this might be the only public place, other than stadiums and the Fan Zone, where alcohol will be available — and that it may be licensed to do so from 10am to 5am. That’s unconfirmed.
But this experience, like much else, might not come cheap. It is thought it might cost £75 a day to get in. Just eight weeks out, the price has not been disclosed.
FIFA’s big party
The lack of space means they’re creating one big Fan Zone — with a 40,000 capacity — at Al Bidda Park, near the Corniche. This is the place to be if you want to enjoy a drink and watch a game on the big screens, so long as you have a taste for Budweiser, the ubiquitous official beer partner.
They will be selling it from 6.30pm until 1am there. Not great if you want to watch one of the daily 1pm and 4pm games with a beer in your hand but FIFA have taken the view that maintaining a no-alcohol environment for the first two games at the Fan Zone is appropriate and respectful of a host nation in which many view alcohol with suspicion.
Beer was selling for £5.50 a pint at a 2019 experimental Fan Zone for the Club World Cup. FIFA promise free concerts with international stars. But there are no names yet.
Going on a beer hunt
Finding a beer is statistically football fans’ biggest source of concern about this World Cup. The Qatari state sets the price and some of the 30 or so Western style hotels which serve it believe there may be orders to bring the price down from the current £12-£15 to around £8 pint. Very pricey.
The World Cup will not be cheap for football fans, with beer set to cost up to £8 per pint
But the good news for fans is that some of the hotels — whose bars will be packed to the rafters — are looking at providing outdoor drinking areas.
The Intercontinental Beach Hotel, where the tournament’s referees are staying, is creating a 1,500-capacity outdoor space for its Oktoberfest event and may keep that available for the World Cup.
The Radisson is also thought to be considering an outdoor space for 400 and an additional area for 1,100. Qatar officials were asked last week if pop-up off-licences will enable fans to buy alcohol. They refused to say. But the answer is almost certainly no.
All eight are architectural masterpieces. The Qataris are planning to make them a place for congregation. Once beyond every stadium’s security checks and x-ray machines, on the ‘inner perimeter’ fans will be able to buy yet another Budweiser for the three hours before kick-off and for one hour afterwards.
Sportsmail’s entry to the stadium from Lusail Metro, two hours before kick-off in a match between Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s club champions, was smooth and untroubled.
A direct 25-minute walk. But the heat and humidity were broiling inside and did not live up to what Qatar’s World Cup air conditioning guru Dr Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, known locally as ‘Dr Cool’, had promised.
The Lusail Stadium in DOHA will be the main stadium of the World Cup later this year
The ground recently hosted the Lusail Super Cup between Zamalek and winner Al Hilal
Many ordinary fans also found the experience a dreadful one. The stadium stands were out of water by half-time and there was none outside, where the late summer temperature was 34°C (93°F), though it felt far hotter because of the humidity.
There were long exit queues, with the stadium close to its 80,000 capacity. At least it will only be 25°C in November.
All kicking off?
The Qatari security forces doing a ceremonial walk on camels when Sportsmail visited last week did not look the best equipped to cope with anything that might kick off before England v Wales or USA v Iran. Qatari officials refused to tell us how many officers would be assigned to games.
Qatar is the only Gulf nation which allows non-nationals to do its policing, though at the Lusail Stadium’s opening game there seemed to be different firms running security, judging by their different uniforms, and no identifier to reveal who was actually in authority.
That could create a problem if, say, England and Wales fans had a difference of opinion and one of these men in uniform tried to make an arrest or eject someone.
London was wrecked when England faced Italy in the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley Stadium
But there has been strong liaison with overseas police. Mark Roberts, head of the UK Football Policing Unit, visited in August and RAF jets will patrol airways, as part of a long-standing co-operation between Qatar and the UK.
The risk of trouble from England fans is actually remote — simply as the tournament is too far away and too expensive for them to travel in the kinds of numbers which saw the open fights with Russia fans in Marseille at Euro 2016.
You only have to walk around Qatar’s public areas to see that it is a CCTV surveillance society. Rules are rules. One motorway sign warns of a 10,000 Qatari Riyal (£2,400) fine for littering.
There are cameras all along the Corniche. This has been extended into the way the tournament is being policed via a NASA-style control centre from which — for the first time at a World Cup — all eight stadiums can be simultaneously monitored by staff who can zoom in on a single fan or identify a storeroom door being left open.
There are 15,000 high resolution cameras in every stadium and AI technology means an alarm will sound if groups of fans move into a section of a stadium where they shouldn’t be. ‘We can clearly identify a fan and where there’s an undesired activity, like people jumping on chairs,’ says Niyas Abulrahiman, the facility’s chief technology officer.
It sounds very Big Brother, but the Qataris tell Sportsmail how their control centre viewing cameras at every stadium turnstile area and concourse means that the chaos which beset the French security services at last May’s Champions League final cannot happen here.
An alarm will sound if groups of fans move into a section of a stadium where they shouldn’t be
When all is said and done, England will be hoping to win the tournament for the second time
‘Our algorithms can predict how a crowd is forming and take corrective action to prevent it escalating into an uncontrolled situation,’ says Abulrahiman. ‘The Paris situation happened because there was a crowd control issue that went beyond their control. We are not going to be in that situation.’
On the bright side…
The key is not to expect the usual football experience. Fans who accept this is a non-drinking country and that a drink is a less prominent feature feel better for it. But accommodation is a worry.
‘Last-minute’ is the Qatari way and it feels like the overnight experience may not be great for some.
But Qatar will throw money at making this a party. This is a land of the British three-point plug.
The service culture among immigrant service sector workers is superb. There will be the chance to see multiple games in the compressed space.
Some Welsh fans will be at the Morocco v Croatia game. An England contingent are even planning to support Denmark against Australia. There’s always a silver lining.
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