Passersby peek through the window of a house where locals were watching the World Cup at the Souk Waqif market in Doha, Qatar. (Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
7 min

DOHA, Qatar — As the merits and demerits of this oddball World Cup go forth into battle for its legacy, one merit ought to get some consideration: a fresh wave of fans invited to the spectacle. It’s possible this World Cup had the “world” part down more than any of its 21 predecessors. Day upon day, it fattened the number of nationalities one might encounter at a World Cup. Day upon day upon day, in the new metro and in the souk and by the beach, you could feel in the air what you might call the turn.

The Middle East got its turn at the world’s favorite sporting event and the gratefulness blared, with two major heartbeats dominating the sound.

The first — and smaller — were Arab fans who yearned to see this first World Cup in the Arab world succeed even if their own teams hadn’t qualified. Those included the Egyptian fans with a regular dance spot amid the enchanting Souk Waqif, that vortex of bustle near the water and skyline, even though any sporting event misses out when it lacks Mo Salah.

The Saudi fans from next door watched their early upset of Argentina and made ear-boggling noise even with no way of knowing they would be the only team to beat Argentina. Their team tapered off in the group stage, yielding the noise to Moroccans, whose semifinal run brought the event a key track on its soundtrack and whose booming national anthems doubled as goose-bump factories.

Yet a second — and larger — presence were South Asians, both those who traveled to a World Cup because suddenly they could and those who reside in Qatar and do all the work (alongside Filipinos and Kenyans and Sudanese, among others).

First, the travelers: Between the group stage and the knockout stage, FIFA counted up the inbound visitors and found Saudi Arabians ranked No. 1, no surprise for a next-door neighbor. In second place came India, with 56,893 travelers. In the latest FIFA rankings, India ranks 106th. It has never played in a World Cup. You may have heard there’s another sport it fancies more.

Indians relish many sports, though, so this became the World Cup where that guy who asks you to take his photo in front of a stadium has just taken some days off from work in Bangalore because the World Cup suddenly sits a four-hour flight away and it’s wildly easier to get a visa for this than for anything in Europe or North America.

But the travelers fade next to the lifeblood of Qatar: the guest workers. They hail mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They’re the ones whose plights the world suddenly noticed when a disputed number of construction workers died building the stadiums for the World Cup and when the World Cup caused reforms such as limiting their daytime hours in summertime heat. They’re the estimated 88 percent living in a country in which the homeland citizens comprise 12 percent. View it this way: Qataris number about 313,000; the people in Qatar from the southern Indian state of Kerala alone number about 230,000.

Without the guest workers, the World Cup fizzles. They’re the drivers, the baristas, the grocery store clerks, the guy in the back deli doling out your latest quarter-pound of hummus, the EMTs, the nurses, the doctors, the barber who lets you leave with all your belongings to go get cash to pay because nobody here steals anything, the wait staff, the chefs, the person carving turkey at a Thanksgiving for Americans, the security attendants along stairs at the eight stadiums, the food delivery outside the KFC, the masseurs standing outside in their scrubs on the boulevard during work breaks, the clerks at the airport, the clerks at the abaya stores, the clerks at the shawarma shop, the people bringing lattes out to drivers in their cars, the people on megaphones giving instructions about where to walk to find the metro — “Metro, this way, metro, this way, metro, this way” — the attendants guiding throngs to metro cars, the guys washing cars indoors at strip malls between other shops, the security trying to keep safe an eager Moroccan crowd before a match, the people trying to get you to buy ice cream from little huts at the beach, the fishermen down by the gulf across from the skyline, the men inside the restrooms cleaning them constantly and, of course, the hired fans for the Qatari team, because a tiny population needs a fan-section boost.

They were the energy here.

They marveled that they seldom see Qataris except in their cars, or maybe at the shopping malls, those social hubs here. They sat out nights at the Asian Town mall with its jaw-dropping bustle of 100 percent guest workers, and with men sitting together out front on patches of grass, men and men and more men, men trying to quell the boredom. They waved and placed their hands on their hearts and chatted up an unfamiliar face, just as they tend to shy from interviews, in part out of fear about their jobs but also because they’re baffled someone would interview them.

Some of them won a lottery the Qatar government offered and attended World Cup matches for $11. In about 150 conversations across 35 days, some said they’re building houses back home. Some said they can’t save any money. Most said the World Cup and the pressure it caused helped make them less exploited. Some said, Eh. Some said they got exploited by signing on for a job, traveling here and finding it was another job.

They, too, liked the turn at a World Cup, at least more than never having the turn. What a scene one Friday night, to see a watch party for Brazil vs. Cameroon end and to see hundreds of fans filing out in yellow Brazil shirts and with green-dominant Brazil flags — all of them South Asian guest workers.

This was the World Cup where the spiffy new metro alone could surround you with five Ghanaian security officers inviting you to Ghana (yes, please), or find you in a nine-stop conversation with a Sudanese man who has been here 20 years, or place you next to an Egyptian who’ll send you a teary emoji once Morocco loses, or enable a conversation with a Palestinian family with three daughters, the older two of whom are so smart and with-it that you hope they run the world someday.

The children love their English. Qatari children did come up to greet. “Welcome,” a tiny Qatari girl said in the shopping mall with the canal and the gondola, her mother smiling from a burqa behind her. A Qatari boy, unprompted, gave a visitor a heart sign. A Qatari boy of 13 chased down a visitor after a brief conversation to say the brief conversation had been “a beautiful time.” Where are the Qataris? On nights they’re at Katara Beach, with a giant outdoor market, old men building old boats, traditional dances and kids kicking soccer balls into the backpack of a straggler before filing up to apologize.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino had his moments here but achieved rational hope last week when he said: “The main legacy is that those who came, and that those who were here, to welcome them, they’ve actually discovered that what is said, what is thought, or what is believed is not true, that you can spend time together and just enjoy. Just spend a good time and just know each other better. And even when they go back home, they will speak about their experience.” The turn has come. The chance for fresh interconnection and fresh fan groups kept feeling like something worth doing.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.