Qatar made a promise to fans 12 years ago when it began bidding to host the World Cup: We love football as much as you do, so come and enjoy it with us.
The message confirmed there would be skeptics that a tiny emirate whose side had never been to a World Cup – never played a qualifier until 1977 – could match the passion for football’s biggest event, then-host Germany of the year had shown in 2006.
A certain skepticism is still present on the eve of the tournament.
Doubts about the safety of LGBTQ fans in a country where same-sex relationships are criminalized and the confused reaction provoked by Qatar’s cost-sharing plan for about 1,500 fans to visit and be a social media influencer.
Invited fans will attend the opening ceremony dressed in their respective team’s colors and sing approved chants before Qatar face Ecuador in their first game on November 20, and then stay for at least two weeks, posting positive social media content and trolling the Report tournament organizers.
Is Qatar “getting” football culture enough to host the biggest event in the world’s most popular sport?
Absolutely, a local fanatic in Doha told The Associated Press.
“This whole country is going to turn into a festival – we all know that,” said Hamad Al Amari, who watches Premier League games with a Liverpool fan group, in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
A nation that’s like a city-state – with about 350,000 inhabitants in a population of less than 3 million – will test its limits to cope with the 1.2 million visitors expected during the 29-day tournament will.
Some watch matches in malls, in alcohol-free bars like the Lemon Cafe in Tawar Mall, favored by Al Amari’s group of Liverpool fans.
“People who want to have a pint (beer) go to hotels. There are sports bars that understand that,” he said, highlighting champions at a five-star Marriott hotel in West Bay.
There, a bottle of beer costs 56 riyals (about $15).
Budweiser, the World Cup beer sponsor, will be poured throughout the evening at the official FIFA Fan Festival site, a 40,000-seat area in downtown Al Bidda Park. Al Amari, a stand-up comedian, will also work here as an entertainment host.
The park and the expansive waterfront Corniche area, now closed to traffic, will be focal points for many fans.
It will be difficult to find a secret off-the-beaten-path spot to watch matches, Al Amari said, and restaurants and hookah bars in the narrow streets of Souq Waqif market will be in high demand.
“It’s the hardest place to get a seat,” he said. “They’re more for the resident guests who are always there and everyone knows where to sit.”
Not all of the demand will come from European fans, at least until the knockout rounds when the home frenzy usually kicks in.
The Belgian Football Association has reported that it has sold hundreds, not thousands, of tickets from the 8% quota of stadium capacity each team is given.
In Switzerland, one of Europe’s wealthiest nations, about half of their quota – 1,500 tickets – has been sold for games against Cameroon and Serbia. More, but not all, were bought for the glamor match against Brazil.
The Swiss Football Association cites the travel costs to Doha, the limited choice of hotels and the debate over Qatar’s human rights record as deterrents.
In England, the official group for LGBTQ fans, Three Lions Pride, will not be attending this World Cup.
“We understand from our peers, Qatari nationals and migrant group peers, that our visibility, our presence, would leave them vulnerable to systematic institutional abuse and possible vigilantism,” group founder Di Cunningham said this week. “Well, no, we’re not going.”
The allure and a World Cup adventure still drives many fans to invest time and money.
In Argentina – home of soccer icon Lionel Messi – fans face two obstacles to being in Qatar: distance and a few dollars.
A tourist package costs about $10,000, which includes flights, accommodation and tickets to three group games. That’s a lot of money for most Argentines, as inflation is at 7% and restrictions on access to dollars are driving up the price of black market purchases.
Despite this, Osvaldo Santander and his son Julian will travel to their third World Cup this year with their life savings, banner sales and a TV game show win.
Osvaldo Santander won 1 million pesos (about US$6,500) with the best estimate of how long the film Shrek is.
“I said 126 (minutes) and it was 93. I won because I was the closest,” he said at his home in Banfield, a suburb south of Buenos Aires.
Santander also sells team banners to finance renting an apartment with other friends to stay in Doha for a month.
“We’re very passionate, crazy fans,” said Santander. “We feel obliged to show our banners with our name, our city, our great idols Leo (Messi) and Diego (Maradona).”
Santander and his son don’t have tickets for Argentina games yet. They plan to sell the tickets they got for the games of other teams, including Brazil, to pay for the seats for the games they want.
Their dedication is typical of World Cup fans, who can also be loud and boisterous.
Will Qataris enjoy such behavior in their socially conservative country?
“We know we are a minority in our own country,” Al Amari said, adding when asked if some citizens would be taking vacations until the end of the World Cup. “There’s a tiny, tiny percentage of people who will leave.”
Rey reported from Buenos Aires.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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