Reflections on a trip to Qatar

Image Credit: Reuters

By: Nuha Khan

The 2022 FIFA World Cup was the greatest edition of the most spectacular global sporting tournament. Attending the World Cup was the experience of a lifetime, allowing me to watch my favorite players, explore Qatar, and interact with fellow fans from all across the world. 

In this article, I discuss my experience at the tournament and offer my thoughts on some of the controversies surrounding it. 

Environment

During my time in Doha, I attended three group stage matches — Brazil vs. Serbia, US vs. England, and Brazil vs. Switzerland. As an avid Brazil supporter, it was a dream come true watching the five-time world champions play on the biggest stage. Sitting among fans from all around the world demonstrated the unique cultural exchange the World Cup facilitates. A notable example of this was seeing fans dawn the traditional Qatari thobe and ghutra with their own country’s flag printed onto it. While at the games, I had not seen one fight, one example of disorderly conduct, or inappropriate behavior towards anyone — all which are almost always visible at sporting events. It is only logical to attribute much of this to the strict absence of alcohol in the stands. Remember the appalling events at Wembley during the EURO 2020 final? An interesting fact: according to the UK Football Police Chief, Qatar 2022 was the first World Cup in history where an English fan was not arrested. 

Qatar maintains its ranking as the world’s ‘safest country’ of the 142 there is data for, according to the Numbeo Crime Index by Country 2023. As a woman, I could walk the street alone at 1:00am with zero fear or concern. 

From arriving at the airport to attending games, everything was digitized and utilized the most modern technology. The metro system was convenient, high-tech, beyond clean, and efficient. Having spent over $220 billion dollars to prepare for the tournament, it only makes sense that Qatar’s infrastructure rivals that of past and even future hosts. 

Outside of stadiums, there was no shortage of entertainment with attractions such as the FIFA Fan Festival, the Corniche, and Souq Waqif. If wanted, alcohol could be purchased at The Fan Festival, which had free entry. 

Implications

Playing the World Cup in the Middle East for the first time highlighted the talents of traditionally non-footballing countries. With massive upsets like Sudi Arabia defeating Argentina, Tunisia beating France, and Morocco thrashing European football powers Belgium, Spain, and Portugal. Holding the tournament here surely gave these nations a sense of confidence and stronger support from the audience. This is exactly why it is crucial for the World Cup to be hosted in different regions so as to uplift smaller countries and create greater competition in the tournament.

Criticism

While Qatar 2022 provided no shortage of excitement, it was also surrounded by heavy criticism. 

The Guardian reports that around 6,500 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since 2010. The Qatari government claims between 400-500 of these deaths were a result of World Cup related projects. These deaths are utterly devastating and unacceptable. 

To address the backlash, Qatar raised the minimum wage to $274.65 a month starting in March of 2021, established an insurance fund to support workers who were swindled of their wages, and most notably worked to dismantle the “Kafala” system. The dismantling of the Kafala system means that workers would no longer need to consult their sponsor to change jobs or leave the country. 

Despite all this, criticism of Qatar has been disproportionate and grossly biased. It seemed as if nothing Qatar did could be recognized positively. The opening ceremony was an emotionally inspiring showcase of unity and celebration with Oscar winning actor Morgan Freeman and Qatari YouTuber and philanthropist Ghanim Al Muftah reciting verses of the holy Quran saying, “[We] made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another.” Yet, the BBC refused to air the ceremony on BBC One, instead opting to show it on BBC iPlayer and their website. Meanwhile, they had no objection to showing the 2018 World Cup opening ceremony in Russia — despite Vladimir Putin having annexed and occupied parts of Ukraine since 2014. Similarly, BBC and other Western media outlets had no protest against the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics despite China’s ongoing genocide against Uighur Muslims. So while Qatar’s actions warrant criticism, is it fair to remain silent on the outright atrocities of other countries? 

In preparation for the 2014 World Cup, Brazil evicted 250,000 people from their homes to make room for tournament infrastructures. The backlash towards this was minimal. One wrong does not rectify another however, we must be fair and proportionate with our responses. 

The inflated criticism towards Qatar was illustrated during the trophy ceremony. As Lionel Messi mounted the stage to receive his trophy, the Emir of Qatar draped the Argentine with the Qatari ‘Bisht’ — a cloak-like men’s garment worn by dignitaries and on celebratory occasions. While this was an act of honoring Messi with a regal symbol, Western media immediately erupted with racist condemnation of the gesture. The Telegraph wrote that the gesture was a “bizarre act” that “ruined the greatest moment in World Cup history” while BBC’s Gary Lineker claimed the event was “a shame.”  Ironically, Messi and the Argentines seemed to welcome the gesture as Argentinian fans rushed to Souq Waqif to buy their own ‘bishts’. 

Offering a symbol of the host country’s culture to athletes and fans is characteristic of any global sporting event. Brazilian legend Pele was given a ‘sombrero’ to wear when he won the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and winners of the 2004 Olympics in Greece were given Greek laurel wreaths to wear during medal ceremonies. 

Qatar committed serious wrongdoings leading up to the World Cup that deserve condemnation. However, the overt double standard applied to the Middle Eastern state speaks to some of the racism within the controversy surrounding this World Cup. 

My Takeaways

For me, the 2022 FIFA World Cup showcased the ability of sport to unite people and the bright future of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries in soccer. Doha’s impeccably safe, clean, and technologically advanced environment made the experience truly worry-free and enjoyable. The sight of different country flags flooding the streets, the sounds of chants invigorating the stadium, and the feeling of immersing myself in the greatest soccer tournament in history made this the experience of a lifetime. 

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