Qatar’s resplendent welcome fails to hide what this World Cup represents

Qatar’s resplendent welcome fails to hide what this World Cup represents

It took three days to find the fans. By that I mean fan, singular. And, to be honest, I had to go looking for him – always a positive sign on the eve of a World Cup.

Samir was a sole Morocco shirt on the side of the road, negotiating a dusk-lit pavement strewn with lawless bricks that will probably be used to erect another new building before the morning. He too is searching for supporters in this sanitised land of shopping malls and motorways.

He speaks very little English and me even less Arabic, but we communicate well enough to ascertain that both his national team and mine will have some trouble advancing from their groups, and that he thinks it bizarre Qatar is basically the same size as one city, his native Casablanca (for the record, its population is smaller and geography larger).

Samir is headed to Souq Waqif, a marketplace near the waterfront popular with tourists. The traditional 20th-century building, which sells spices, handicrafts, clothes and souvenirs, has been restored since I was last here in 2006. In truth, most of the city has changed, the only truly familiar landmark the spiral minaret of the Doha Islamic Centre.

The nation-building exercise since that fateful December day in 2010, when the world watched in collective disbelief as this oil-rich Gulf nation was awarded World Cup hosting rights, has been a turbocharged operation in infrastructure growth with questionable long-term prospects.

The roads are upgraded, the architecture grand and the green spaces spick and span. At every turn are migrant labourers – both in the flesh and in the structures they have created under a kafala system repeatedly censured by human rights organisations. Thank god Gianni Infantino understands.

Many are security guards – a Guardian report found that guards at one Doha park appear to be being paid 1330 rials ($AU547/£310) a month for 348 hours on duty. Others are diligently maintaining every patch of grass in the searing heat, while more man the squeaky-clean metro system installed for a cool 130 billion riyals ($AU53bn) and featuring driverless trains which can cruise at 100km/h.

And even when they are not there, they are there. One afternoon a colleague from another news outlet tripped up on a bolt in the ground in the suburb of Al Sadd, and then noticed others evenly spaced along the sidewalk. The following day, a long line of small lamp posts had materialised as if by magic.

Others are employed in absurd numbers at official accredited venues, including a main media centre as big as an international airport with travelators to boot. Accreditations are cheerfully checked, directions are thorough and guileless and food is prepared politely. If someone learns your name they often remember it. So far I have met people from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Morocco and Kenya.

Today’s taxi driver is from Kerala. He has been in Doha for two months, drafted in especially for the World Cup. During our trip the car’s screen pops up to an audible ping: “Return to your rank,” it reads. “High volume of passengers. Do not delay.” He drops me off and buzzes away into the city of skyscrapers, some emblazoned with giant images of Robert Lewandowski and Neymar, among many others – evidence this tournament is actually happening.

The fans, as it turns out, are around and can be found at the corniche, the shimmering seafront esplanade where thousands have congregated in merriment. A large proportion simply meandered, their phones capturing videos of revellers and selfies with installations reading “QATAR” and “FIFA WORLD CUP”.

Others danced en masse, decked out in the colours and flags of Brazil and Argentina though with a distinctly Arab influence. A group of Tunisian supporters blew horns, a little girl with her mother in tow wearing a miniature Youssef Msakni jersey – suffice to say Australian supporters will be outnumbered at the Tunisia match. Add to the mix a lot of Bangladeshis, all having loads of fun despite not having qualified.

Not a single Socceroos shirt was visible in the throng, though there is a contingent coming. The latest numbers from the Australian embassy suggest 20,000 tickets have been sold to 10,000 people. Two thousand of those are expats living in Qatar, while an unconfirmed proportion of the other 8,000 will likely have been bought by the 18,000 Australians who live in the United Arab Emirates.

A few hundred are also travelling with tourism groups the Green and Gold Army and the Fanatics. Socceroos superfan Pablo Bateson will be a notable absentee. The Sydneysider has attended about 90 World Cup qualifying games since 1973 but has turned down an offer to be paid as a “fan guest” by Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

Last week the Fanatics’ founder, Warren Livingstone, said a few factors had played a part in a downturn of travelling supporters, including Qatar’s track record on workers’ and LGBTQ+ rights and the local laws and customs which will impact the fan experience. They are, of course, headlined by the strict control of alcohol consumption.

That was before the stadium beer ban. Whispers ran rampant on Friday morning that it was happening. Then came the Fifa statement, which served only to reconfirm the governing body is very much at the behest of the host country it selected. The online outrage, though – which almost shut down Twitter before Elon Musk did – was non-existent on the ground apart from those who had lobbed in just for the tournament.

Visitors can still buy a beer at the official Fifa fan zone, a vast, unshaded space resembling a giant concrete car park. For those wondering, you can get one elsewhere pretty easily too, though you’ll have to pay for it. Yours truly shelled out 39 riyals ($AU16) for a Corona at one venue and 48 riyals ($AU19.75) for a pint of Heineken at another. In truth it’s tougher to find a decent coffee, with the price of a cappuccino hovering around 24 riyal ($AU9.85).

We sit at a cafe in a shopping mall which contains an ice skating rink, a theme park complete with rollercoaster and ferris wheel, and a Venice-style canal with floating gondolas for transport. The roof throughout the complex is painted sky blue, with clouds. It is all very confusing. This is nowhere near the biggest mall in this city.

But this is the stuff of a nation giddy on wealth and gifted a licence, through football, to launder its reputation on the global stage. And that is the long and short of the atmosphere at this World Cup – terrifyingly resplendent and mocked up to sterilised perfection, all to woo the world into forgetting about what it has come to represent.