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What it’s like being at the World Cup

9 min

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DOHA, Qatar — Today’s WorldView isn’t often on the ground for major world events, so here’s a review of my week so far at the World Cup, in diary form.

Monday evening — It was night by the time a shuttle bus took me from the airport to the apartment complex where my Washington Post colleagues and other journalists attached to the U.S. soccer team are being housed. The ride itself was a kind of portal into the World Cup. We went down wide highways that had just been completed ahead of the tournament. They spooled out into the dark of the desert, with small pockets of workers shifting disused machinery and tending to signs for access roads with labels like “Spectators” or “V.V.I.P.”

Qatar is less a traditional nation-state and more a kind of global emporium, run by a dominant monarchical family whose edifice of power is built on the nation’s natural gas fortunes. Its small cohort of some 350,000 citizens are just a fraction of its larger foreign population.

As we drove along, you could see winking in the distance some vast new constructions: The brand new satellite city of Lusail, replete with a phalanx of largely vacant skyscrapers and the huge bowl of the stadium that will host the World Cup final; the glowing Education City Stadium, which sits near the Qatari-funded campuses of U.S. universities like Georgetown and Northwestern and is designed to look from above like a shimmering diamond catching the light; the Torch Tower, the tallest structure in Qatar whose metal frame shifts colors and images and at night, from afar, looks like a solitary beacon across the flat Qatari plane.

In reality, the tower looms over a whole new set of neighborhoods built in time for the World Cup, including our apartment block. Our apartment faces out to a boulevard where new businesses and shops — a major supermarket, a Krispy Kreme, a KFC, an Egyptian restaurant, a recruitment company for migrant workers, a dingy-looking men’s only massage parlor (where, per conservative custom and the gender skew in the labor force, the masseurs are all men as well), and a doner kebab stand.

In just one evening stroll to get my bearings, I hear close to a dozen different languages on the street, including Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish, Tagalog, Swahili, Dari, Malayalam and, of course, Arabic. I’ll have more to say next week about the experience of migrants in Qatar, but in my initial conversations two things seem to come to the fore: Genuine awe over the scale of what the country’s migrant laborers have built in the past decade and gnawing concern over what may follow after the World Cup, with many workers facing expiring contracts and no certainty about finding new employment.

The World Cup is always about much more than the World Cup

Tuesday morning — It’s not a World Cup if there isn’t a complex bureaucratic process to do anything and so I make my way to the cavernous Qatar National Convention Center, where FIFA has stationed its central operations catering to the estimated 16,000 journalists who have arrived for the tournament. After wandering through a maze of car parks, escalators, tunnels and security checkpoints, I emerge into a central hall where journalists are rushing around finalizing accreditation and matchday tickets.

No one seems to be bothered by the giant bronze metal sculpture of a spider that’s sitting right in the middle of everything, but I am transfixed. It’s by the late French American artist Louise Bourgeois and is supposedly an ode to her mother, who made tapestries. “She was my best friend,” the artist has said. “Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. Spiders are friendly presences that are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

By one of the spider’s legs, I hear an English journalist anxiously ask a volunteer about the location of the Oasis, a room in the convention center where foreigners supposedly can get booze — a rare spot given the difficulty of finding alcohol outside of Doha’s sold-out five-star hotels. Catching me smiling at him, he quips: “I need to get pissed.” I have arrived nine days into the tournament.

Tuesday evening — The rest of the day is consumed by preparations for the clutch U.S. vs. Iran match, which the United States wins in a nervy 1-0 clash. (You can read my colleagues’ and my reporting on the game here, here and here.) Outside Al Thumama Stadium, I encountered quite a few Iran fans who had come to Qatar from the United States. They stressed that their support for the Iranian team had nothing to do with the political regime in Tehran they despised. When the anthem of the Islamic Republic is played, audible boos and jeers are heard around the stadium.

Though I didn’t see this myself, numerous reports later emerged of pro-regime supporters brawling with Iranians who voiced support for the ongoing anti-regime protests. An expat living in Qatar suggests to me that Iran’s exit from the World Cup is a source of quiet relief for Qatari authorities because of the unique security conditions their games provoked.

After enduring insults and threats, Iranian team exits World Cup

Wednesday morning — For a change of scenery, I meet a source at Al Maha Island, a horseshoe-shaped spit of land near the Lusail complex that’s home to a popular nighttime Ferris wheel and amusement park and an assorted collection of famous, ritzy American restaurants. Can’t get a table at Carbone in Manhattan? You probably have better odds at Carbone in Qatar.

Wednesday afternoon — Later in the day, I head south to an elegant area known as the Pearl that’s perched along the seaside. Unlike large stretches of Doha, it contains many areas favorable for pedestrians, with leafy squares and a veritable thicket of coffee shops. In a plaza named after the Alhambra, the iconic palace of Muslim Spain, I meet a well-heeled Tunisian couple posing for selfies. They are headed to a game against France, the current world champions, and are buoyed by the Pan-Arab solidarity their country is receiving. “All of Qatar is with us,” the husband says.

Wednesday evening — I appear for a brief hit on CNN International, which is filming specially this week on location at the charming Souq Waqif, a quaint part of the city near the coastal Corniche. Just as anchor Becky Anderson and I are about to begin the segment, a roar breaks out from behind us. Tunisia is doing the unthinkable and beating France. I walk back through the souk among throngs of green-shirted Mexican and Saudi fans. They are poised to play each other, with qualification to the next round on the line. But all is light and convivial — one mixed group of Saudis and Mexicans even attempts a Levantine dabka circle dance to a track from Bad Bunny blasted out by a nearby restaurant.

Even though Tunisia ultimately wins, their victory isn’t enough to advance them. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Mexico manage to make it to the knockout round, either.

Fitting the World Cup into tiny Qatar

Wednesday night — Stadium 974 in Doha is named after the number of shipping containers that form its structure. At some point after the tournament ends, Qatar intends to dismantle the 44,000-seater and ship its component pieces to an undesignated nation in Africa. Even before the game between Argentina and Poland begins, it feels like Argentina’s hinchas want to start the relocation early.

They vastly outnumber the small contingent of Poles in attendance and the stadium almost heaves to their songs and frequent rhythmic jumping. They sing about their legendary talismans Lionel Messi and the late Diego Maradona. They sing about the fallen soldiers in the Falklands War. They sing about loving Argentina each day, more and more.

Anxiety creeps in after Messi shows his mortality and misses a penalty in the first half. But things right themselves soon in the second half and Argentina crests toward victory and qualification to the next round, overcoming the now-distant shock of losing to Saudi Arabia in their opening match. Poland ends the game unfussed — Mexico’s narrow win over the Saudis mean they are through too on goal difference.

Thursday evening — Hoping to avoid another late bedtime, I decide to skip the 10 p.m. kickoffs and focus on an early evening match. That ends up being a mistake: Japan pulls off a thrilling victory over Spain, clinching its group and knocking out European heavyweight Germany. It caps a stunning first round of upsets that see an African and Asian nation both win their groups.

I attended Canada vs. Morocco, not because it was a particularly intriguing contest, but because of the spectacle of any match involving a North African nation. Moroccans, like Tunisians, are here in Doha in their thousands and packed Al Thumama Stadium. They are raucous in the first half as their team secures a comfortable 2-0 lead over Canada, which has already been eliminated and is playing simply for pride. But the Canadians pull one back and the two Moroccan journalists sitting next to me in the press box start panicking, casting wary eyes on their screens to the Croatia vs. Belgium game while swearing loudly at their own players.

In the end, Morocco holds on, becoming the only Arab team to make the second round. Video shows the emir of Qatar in the stands, waving the Moroccan flag. Outside the stadium, I speak to Maryam Rochdi, 35, a Moroccan expatriate living in Doha. “This city is usually very quiet,” she told me, “but we at the World Cup have given it a new soul.”