DOHA, Qatar — Abdulrahman Al Malki says he’ll never watch soccer the same way again after seeing Mexico‘s fans in action at the World Cup in Qatar.
There was a time when Al Malki, 28, a marketer for the Qatar Foundation (a state-led nonprofit organization), thought he might leave Doha for the month during the tournament to avoid the crush of visitors. Many of his compatriots did. But the tournament quickly got under his skin in a good way, and when he took in El Tri’s match with Poland back on Nov. 22, what he saw blew him away.
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“I’ve never been with Mexican fans, and that just changed everything for me,” he said while sitting outside a cafe in the Msheireb neighborhood. “The fans are insane. They’re the best fans I’ve seen. I haven’t seen somebody who supports their team as passionately as they do, and how they just bring the soul, it’s a full-of-soul crowd.”
For Qatari nationals like Al Malki, the 2022 World Cup provided a chance to showcase their country and the region to the world. It’s the first time an Arab country hosted the tournament, and with that follows the pressure of international scrutiny and a coming together of cultures from around the world. To get a sense of how locals experienced the World Cup, and their thoughts on the impact and challenges ahead, we spoke to several Qataris.
Abdallah Alsulaiti, a 31-year-old business development analyst for Aspire Academy (a sports academy that scouts and develops Qatari athletes), didn’t need any prodding to tune in to the World Cup. His father, Mohammed, was a goalkeeper for local club Al-Ahli back in the day. Through the round of 16, he went on to average a game per day.
“It feels like a dream to me, honestly. To have the World Cup here, it’s indescribable,” he said over tea. “Especially with the opening ceremony. I just had feelings that I can’t describe. I was so proud, so happy. [But] it’s been a bit tiring.”
Even for someone who didn’t go to the stadium, there were still plenty of ways to watch games. For Sara Al Abdulla, 23, a wellness coordinator, crowds aren’t her favorite. So instead she headed to parks where games were shown on the big screen, with jugglers and other performers providing entertainment at half-time. She took in the France–Tunisia group stage match at such a venue.
“It was [a great time], especially with the last-minute tension,” she said via text message. “The French celebrated and after the VAR, the whole Tunisian crowd went crazy.”
All three individuals, like their countrymen and women, took in the 2022 World Cup over the past month, and it was a roller-coaster ride. There was the failure of the Qatar national team to not only get out of the group stage, but so much as record a point in the standings. That was tempered by the success of teams from Asia and North Africa, with Morocco becoming the first African team in history to make it to the semifinals of the tournament.
Morocco’s fans were arguably the best in the tournament, and that fandom transcended borders as the squad carried the hopes of an entire continent and the diaspora. “Before it was just the Moroccans, now we’re going to add the Africans and the Arabs,” said head coach Walid Regragui after beating Spain.
In addition, while the country was lauded for its hospitality, there was the criticism that comes with being a World Cup host country, ranging from the accusation that Qatar isn’t a “footballing country” to the microscope placed on its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQIA+ community. But seeing foreigners come in and bask in what the city has to offer, from frequenting the markets and restaurants of the Souq Waqif, to donning thobes and gutras (the white robes and headdresses), the World Cup elicited a warm feeling in the local populace; in a sense, it’s possible that Qataris maybe shouldn’t have worried about so many people descending on their country.
Among the critiques that are leveled at Qatar, the “not a footballing country” jibe is the one that invites pushback. The soccer culture might not rival that of London, Buenos Aires or Rabat, but it is there. Soccer is the country’s most popular sport, and not just because Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has been PSG’s owner since 2011 through Qatar Sports Investments (QSI). Professional clubs, like Al-Alhi and Al-Arabi, were founded in the early 1950s. And just about everyone has a memory of playing pickup soccer in the freej, or neighborhood.
“We’d put the small sandals as the two posts, and then this is how we play football,” Al Malki said. “This is how I played with my cousins. This is how I played inside the house and break so much furniture, and my mom would get angry.”
Al Malki even remembers how Pep Guardiola, head coach of Manchester City, once graced the Qatar Stars League with Al-Alhi, and in 2007 wanted to dip his toes into coaching with the club. “They told him no, you don’t have enough experience,” he said. “And then he goes to Barcelona in 2007 — you see how funny this turns out — then he coaches [the first team in 2008], the rest is history.”
There is a problem with attendance in the Qatar Stars League, with crowds often failing to break the 1,000 fans mark. Al Sulaiti chalks it up to the same two teams — Al-Saad and Al Duhail — contending for the title every year, but Al Malki points to a cultural difference in how Qataris watch soccer. Qataris are reserved, and only when a goal is scored will you see any semblance of passion.
“We cheer, but we cheer with silence, sadly,” he says. “Like we go to the stadiums, we are reserved. We’re probably not gonna shout. But come watch a game at a majlis. You’ll see all of the levels of rage.”
As Al Malki describes it, a majlis is one part man cave, one part living room, one part local pub — minus the alcohol. It can be in a house or a separate structure next to a residence. It’s where people — men, mostly — in the neighborhood go to gather and socialize, forge business relationships and yes, watch soccer. And it is there that Qataris feel they can let loose.
“Football is a very talked about topic in the majlis you’d go to,” said Ibrahim Al Mullah, a 22-year-old investment banker. “Any person you meet, one of the first questions you’d ask is, ‘Oh, you watch football? Which team do you support?’ It’s a big thing here.
“And more s— goes down in the majlis, more deep talk goes on there than anywhere else in the country. Like just being around the right people and in the right majlis, it could possibly change your life.”
That lack of in-stadium atmosphere was why organizers felt compelled to bring in hardcore fans from Lebanon, Algeria, and elsewhere to support Qatar at their matches. They provided some noise, even if it didn’t go over well with some Qatar fans.
“Personally I’m not a fan of that, no,” said Al Sulaiti. “I don’t feel like we need to bring in anyone to support us, you know what I mean? Yes, we need to work on the way we cheer, but that comes with time and patience. We don’t need to pay fans to support us, especially not in a World Cup game.”
Al Sulaiti thinks Qatar fans should have done more to support their national team. As much as he didn’t like fans being imported, he didn’t enjoy the sight of Qataris leaving the opener early when the outcome became apparent.
“You as a fan, it’s your job to support the team whether you’re winning or losing,” he said. “The team needs you. So a lot of fans don’t want to go to the next game because we are already out, but when are you going to have a chance again to support the team in the World Cup in your own country? You’re probably never going to have this chance. Not in your lifetime, you know? Not for the next a hundred years. Never, ever.”
Regardless of where any cheering took place, there was universal dismay at the performances Qatar delivered on the field; three losses in three games, and just one goal scored. And for all the talk that Qatar shouldn’t have hosted the World Cup given that it had never qualified for one, this side is the reigning Asian Cup champions. In that tournament, Qatar beat three teams that have had their share of bright moments in this World Cup, including Saudi Arabia in the group stage, as well as South Korea in the quarterfinal and Japan in the final.
“I just felt that the players have no motive to play,” said Khalid Al-Abdullah, 28, who works in media. “If everyone who watched the Qatar team get knocked out of the World Cup so early, watched them like two or three years ago when they performed in the Asian Cup, they would realize even though these are the same players, they really are not the same players anymore. The same names, the same jersey numbers, the same formation, but I don’t think they were the same players. They lost the kind of spark, the motive that used to drive them.”
The fact that the team was in a six-month camp in Europe prior to the World Cup, meaning the players weren’t getting league matches with their club, is pointed to as the primary reason the team performed so poorly.
“These players have over 900 games together, international games,” Al Sulaiti said. “So they have a lot of experience and they are professionals. Sure, nerves could be there, but I don’t think that was the deciding factor. They simply did not show up.”
That has left Qataris to transfer their interest to other Arab and African teams. The fact that this was the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East meant that people from the region had easier access to a World Cup than in the past, adding to the atmosphere of games. Morocco’s run to the semifinals has been a source of pride. The same is true of Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina. This, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was one of the countries engaged in an economic blockade of Qatar up until January 2021.
“It wasn’t between the people, it was between politics, government,” Al Mullah explains. “At the end of the day, a lot of Saudis, a lot of Qataris are intermarried. A lot of them travel to and vice versa. So I don’t feel like the people hate each other in any way. I feel like it’s just when the government has an issue with the other government. As soon as that’s cleared off, there’s no reason for me or for them to hate. No reason at all.”
But even as the matches and fans have added to the overall vibe of the tournament, it isn’t being held in a vacuum. Politics, as it so often does, interjects itself into the festivities.
The criticism over the alleged corruption that landed Qatar the tournament, as well as the protests over the country’s policies toward the LGBTQIA+ community — same-sex relationships are against the law in Qatar — and its treatment of migrant workers have all grated on the psyche of the country’s citizens. This happened as a mural celebrating migrant workers at the Lusail Iconic Stadium was covered up by the Supreme Committee, organizers of the tournament, who explained at the time that Lusail “is currently in tournament mode, with the stadium exterior dressed in FIFA World Cup branding.”
There is talk by several of the Qataris interviewed for this story of hypocrisy and double standards. When Germany‘s players covered their mouths in protests over the fact that FIFA banned “One Love” rainbow-colored armbands, it struck a nerve given that of late, pro-Palestine protests in Germany have been banned.
The influx of visitors has also raised questions as to what extent can the divide be bridged? Does the country want to? Will the powers that be allow it? If so, how much? After all, Qatar is keen to leverage the attention from the World Cup to make the country more of a transnational destination. An increasing culture clash seems inevitable.
There is a theme-park vibe to some of Doha’s environs, whether it’s the newly constructed apartment blocks in the Msheireb neighborhood, the shark sculpture hanging over the main street in Lusail (the so-called “city of the future), or the new storefronts — some of them still empty — near the new cruise ship terminal. Everything is polished, and it makes a positive impression, though it’s also clear there are socio-economic differences in terms of who can benefit from the changes.
On a Sunday afternoon, I’m headed towards the cruise ship terminal, and my cab driver, Shaheed, who moved to Qatar from Pakistan, acts as impromptu tour guide and points out all the new buildings. I ask if he’s had a chance to catch any games. His response encapsulates the gap between those who have the means to go and those who don’t.
“I’m losing money if I’m not working,” he says.
Shaheed has lived in Doha for eight years, and has noted the changes as a foreigner. He says that when he first arrived, there were two bars in the whole city, one at the Radisson Blu and another at the Mercure. Now there are too many to count, though they exist in hotels, and the prices are an impediment.
He estimates that Doha is where Dubai — the tourist hub in the UAE — was about 10 years ago in terms of nightlife. As for alcohol access in Dubai, tourists can get booze in a supermarket once they get a temporary license. That is still a ways away in Doha.
“It takes time to convince the locals,” Shaheed says.
On some aspects, however, they can be convinced. Qatar has made changes to its migrant worker laws, allowing things such as a law regulating working conditions for live-in domestic workers, labor tribunals to facilitate access to justice, a fund to support payment of unpaid wages, and a minimum wage. These reforms were lauded by the people who ESPN interviewed for this story, and held up as proof that Qatar can change.
Reem Al Kubaisi, 22, a student majoring in international politics at Georgetown University’s satellite campus in Doha, thinks the reforms should go even further. She points to an incident back in August involving Al-Bandary Group (an engineering and contracting company focused on construction and development), whose workers engaged in a protest over unpaid wages. They got their money, but not before being deported.
“I think the reason that the labor reform laws haven’t been as effective is because the migrant workers, the state, the ministry of labor, hasn’t done their due diligence to educate the migrant workers on what exactly their rights are and how they can report exploitation of the work force,” she said.
Other issues move more slowly, if at all. The attitude toward the LGBTQ community seems to be one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The laws against same-sex relationships aren’t enforced, the people interviewed say, especially around the campuses of U.S.-based universities in Education City, outside of Doha.
Rasha Younes, a senior researcher with the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said she senses that at present, the authorities are on their best behavior, as well as the fact that the social hierarchy often defines which members of the LGBTQIA+ community can peacefully exist and which ones face more difficulty.
“I think people are trying to basically hide in the light of the World Cup,” she said via telephone. “I don’t think there has been any kind of crackdown, but the concern remains that after the World Cup is over this may change.”
But the prohibition on public displays of affection applies to everyone, not just the LGBTQIA+ community. And such cultural mores are well entrenched. “In this region of the world, we don’t talk about [and] don’t associate so much our sexual identity,” Al Malki said. “It’s not a thing. It’s not a thing for a heterosexual. It’s never a thing, like the identity around it. You know what I mean?
“Everybody is as they are, but it’s not something that we identify with it. It’s like we have more things on our plate, like we have other things to do.”
That didn’t stop stadium security from clamping down on fans wearing rainbow-colored clothing. Ditto for those supporting the protesters in Iran, though banners were allowed after the country was knocked out of the tournament. It’s selective based on Qatari politics, however, as pro-Palestine protests have been allowed to take place.
That said, safety is a topic that comes up often. It’s one of Doha’s biggest selling points, even if it comes at the cost of less privacy, as the country becomes increasingly surveilled. Al Abdullah remarked how he could put his cell phone on the table at a club, leave for five minutes and not worry about whether it would still be there when he got back. At the same time, European data protection regulators stated that the official World Cup app Hayya and infection-tracking app Ehteraz pose privacy risks and were deemed spyware, and visitors to Qatar were required to download both when entering the country.
Then there’s the geopolitical reality of being a small country sandwiched between two regional heavyweights in Saudi Arabia and Iran. That combined with the fact that Qataris make up only 12% of the population — migrant workers make up the rest — and you have a powerful reason for keeping the status quo, and that includes issues of religion and culture.
“Imagine you were in a European country or the United States, and you were 12% of the population. You would have significant existential fears,” said James Dorsey, an adjunct senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.” “So preserving culture becomes much more important if you feel that you’re on the defensive.”
As such, when it comes to issues like LGBTQIA+ rights, and access to alcohol, there doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room at present. The desire to hang on to religion and culture remains strong against the push of more foreign tourists coming to visit.
“Our identity is the culture,” Al Malki said. “Our identity is our history. It’s the small community. It’s the privacy. I wouldn’t be talking about sexual identity. Why would anybody want to know about this? It’s your business. It’s just the stick that [critics are] using on any other country to try to like just degrade it.”
Access to alcohol draws a similar response. There were fears prior to the World Cup that the country would be overwhelmed by drunk people running roughshod. That didn’t come to pass, but the concern remains.
“In terms of alcohol consumption, I think that personally I hope I see it not as relaxed,” Al Kubaisi said. “Because I know that like a lot of people here fear that, firstly for a safety reason. But also they fear it from a religious reason. So seeing our religion slip through the cracks for the sake of a sporting event, that’s something they don’t want to see in the future.”
Yet change seems inevitable. And in some quarters it’s being embraced, even if a bit cautiously. Qatar hosted the World Cup to put itself on the map, and to bank the soft power that comes with it. It still has aspirations to keep growing, too, and host more events, like the Asian Cup in 2023 and the 2030 Asian Games. That will no doubt come with alterations to life in the country.
“Sometimes being a bit uncomfortable is good,” Al Sulmaiti said. “It’s not an explosive change. It’s steady changes that need to happen. I’m sure there are some people here that were not very happy with the World Cup for whatever reason. I think people would be more accepting. For my opinion, this is just a very positive impact on Qatar, not just this one month. I feel like the aftereffects of this is going to be really, really positive on the country and in a lot of ways.”
There is a thought that once the circus leaves, there will be nothing to stop Qatar from reverting to pre-World Cup levels in terms of some of the reforms. But the country has invested so much. To maintain its current position and grow, it will need to keep investing and adapting. The world stops for no one.
Now, it’s been three days since the end of the 2022 World Cup.
“There definitely will be some sort of post-World Cup depression, because we’ll miss it.” said Al Mullah. “We’ll miss the vibes, we’ll miss the atmosphere, the people. I really hope in the future, we host something else. Because now, this is all I want.”