Qatar 2022: Where is Everybody?
December 6, 2022
Howler is happy to have Matthew Shaddock as its Foreign Correspondent for the duration of the tournament. Today’s dispatch, complete with photography, represents the first of several messages he’ll share from Qatar—where the atmosphere isn’t quite like World Cups past.
It might look right on TV, but it doesn’t feel right in the streets.
Qatari leaders have taken a Field of Dreams approach to the World Cup: “If you build it, they will come.” Newly constructed developments sprawl north of the city, one after the other. Massive, unimaginable sizes and shapes. The skyscrapers seem to be designed on a whim: one looks like a crescent moon. Another, a human eye. A Jenga Tower. A Sail. Kyle Ren’s space ship.
They built it. But so far, the fans simply haven’t come.
Walking the streets of Qatar, you might have assumed the big event was nearly here. Flags lined streets, promotional signs adorned shops, and, further afield, newly constructed Fan Villages stood ready to welcome guests.
The Bad News: The World Cup had begun. And the streets were empty.
Turns out, you can buy the World Cup, but you can’t buy atmosphere. The sea of fans chanting “Ar-gen-tina!” Italians smoking. Mexican mariachis. Beautiful Brazilians.
You can, however, buy a few representative fans: news stories have revealed free vacations and World Cup packages for fan group leaders in countries around the world.
It all has the feel of a World Cup being filmed on a Hollywood sound stage. Produced and put on just for the television content. The true, authentic, masses of singing, chanting, dancing fans? Away from the screens—none to be found.
Groups of 10, 20, 50, or even 1,000 representing every participating nation were shown prominently during the opening ceremonies. The Qatari fan group, numbering hundreds, but were reportedly Iranian military members outfitted as a fans. Rumors of “fake,” paid fans are rampant, though the Qatar World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy vigorously denies them.
So yes, some fans are here. I’ve met fans from almost every participant country. From a Tunisian on my flight in to Mexicans in the Mexihouse Latin Party.
Representing the strongest: Mexico and Argentina. Notably absent: Europeans. The solitary French family, a pair of Spaniards, and a group of Dutch fortysomethings the only ones I’ve come across.
The one nationality I have yet to meet in a spontaneous encounter: an actual Qatari.
You see, here’s what there aren’t in Qatar: enough people to attend the events. Surely you’ve seen the empty seats. Primarily in the lower sections, but also sprinkled around the stadium.
What you’re not seeing on TV are the massive screen watch parties with only a handful of people enjoying in a relaxed atmosphere.
The whole thing feels like the rich kid at school who throws a crazy overboard party and nobody shows up.
Empty fan zones. Entrances with barricades set up for hundreds of meters, all to shepherd a handful of fans in an endless zig zag for no apparent reason.
However, it turns out, there are plenty of people here. Only: they’re not fans. They’re workers. All around you. The longer you are here, the less you notice. At first, however, it’s striking and slightly disturbing.
Almost always, at any event in Qatar, workers outnumber guests. Sometimes by an outsized factor. Soccer is no different. An usher in every 5th row.
Exiting the USA-Wales game, I encountered a human wall of security guards stretching city blocks. There must have been 1,000 guards lined up, silently protecting a fence guarding an empty field.
Walk an empty street, miles from downtown, and there will be a worker sitting in the shade observing the empty parking lot. “For security, sir.”
Workers with megaphones directing you to “Metro, this way. Metro this way.”
As to the streetscape, the massive empty developments with few cars and not even one pedestrian?
At the Qetafan Island Fan Fest: a huge outdoor screen perhaps 50 feet tall, on the beach, with room for thousands…and maybe 10 people at a time watching the game. All the while, twenty food trucks lie in wait.
In this country of 2.8 million, only 10% of the population are citizens. Meaning the other 2.5 million are migrant workers of some kind, from the kind security guard to your Uber driver to your waiter and the lifeguard. Migrant workers have been flown in for the tournament from around the globe, to work security, concessions, reception, et cetera.
Call it the VIP World Cup.
I’ve been to four World Cups. Doha might have the atmosphere of one host city in a World Cup. Sadly, there are usually eight to ten host cities with their own energy and aspiration to shine in the global spotlight. This time, there’s just the one, and it ain’t even that great here.
Matthew Shaddock is a soccer player, watcher, and coach who lives in San Antonio, Texas. A former attorney, he now teaches social studies at a public high school. He spends his summers off with his two young kids and chasing soccer around the world.