Why Qatar's 'best-ever' World Cup is a tough pledge to deliver
Mired in controversy for more than a decade, the first men's World Cup in the Middle East is here
Ready or not, it's here.
From this Sunday until Dec. 18, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar is hosting the biggest sporting event in the world. With some fans camping in the desert and others spending much of their time hunting for cold beer under the blazing sun, this will be a World Cup like none before.
FIFA, soccer's governing body, has suggested this edition will be the "best ever." Human rights activists and many travelling soccer fans aren't so sure.
For starters, never has a men's World Cup been hosted by such a small country. All eight stadiums are within 55 kilometres of each other. That's roughly the length of the island of Montreal.
While organizers have promoted the tournament as being compact — requiring no long trips from one city to another — Qatar's size and lack of experience hosting such mega-events pose their own challenges.
"This is a truly unprecedented event," said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Paris. "It's a nation-building project for Qatar as much as it is anything else."
This country of only three million people is expecting to welcome at least 1.2 million visitors. The surge is sure to put more than 12 years of logistics and hospitality planning to the test.
Simply put, there won't be enough hotels. Foreign fans coming to the capital, Doha, have been encouraged to consider creative options.
The official Qatar 2022 accommodation agency promises "a range of exciting and unique" places to stay. They include makeshift rooms in glorified shipping containers presented as fan village "cabins" ($200 US a night) and tents in the desert outside Doha ($400 US a night).
That's not to mention the three massive cruise ships docked in the port, each acting as a floating hotel.
Organizers have even suggested fans consider staying in the nearby United Arab Emirates and taking the one-hour flight from Dubai to Doha on match days. Think of it like travelling to Detroit, then commuting for an event in Toronto.
'A nation-building project' with a human cost
A British protectorate until it gained independence in 1971, Qatar has sought the global spotlight in recent years. The country expedited major construction projects in the lead-up to the event, spending more than $200 billion US on infrastructure alone.
It has the money to spend. Qatar, an autocracy ruled by an emir, is one of the world's top exporters of natural gas.
The Doha metro, the city's Hamad International Airport and seven new stadiums have all opened since FIFA controversially awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2010. The U.S. Justice Department said world soccer officials were bribed so Qatar would be awarded the event.
The World Cup even had to be moved from its usual June start date so teams wouldn't have to play in dangerously high temperatures, which, in Qatar, rise above 40 C at that time of year.
"For Qatar, logistical issues really started on Day 1 of their bidding process," said Chadwick, who has travelled to Qatar repeatedly in the run-up to the tournament.
All that building, in such a short time-frame, has led to questions about the human cost.
Human rights groups have said thousands of migrant workers have died while building World Cup infrastructure. Qatar insists the number is much lower.
"We believe that Canadian fans don't want to sit in a stadium that workers died to build," said Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, in an interview.
Migrant workers are reported to have been evicted from Doha apartment buildings to make room for World Cup visitors.
Worries about human rights
There is also concern about the country's attitude to the LGBTQ community.
The Canadian government's formal guidance for fans travelling to the tournament warns "Qatari law criminalizes sexual acts and relationships between persons of the same sex or unmarried people."
Fans "don't want to stay in a hotel where same-sex couples may be turned away," Worden said, referring to the reported anti-LGBTQ policies of certain establishments.
Canada Soccer, the country's soccer federation, promised to provide "cultural awareness" training to players and staff before departing for Qatar.
"We're a smart group … guys know what's going on," Alistair Johnston, a defender on Canada's World Cup squad, told CBC News before departing for Qatar. It's the first time in 36 years the country has qualified for the men's tournament.
Johnston said the team hasn't decided whether they would take a stand on human rights while at the tournament, but "we do have strong beliefs on what is right and what is wrong."
Access to booze in Qatar may seem less pressing in comparison, but for many fans, the issue remains a concern.
The booze debacle
The country doesn't ban liquor outright, like its neighbour Saudi Arabia, but alcohol sales are tightly controlled. Beer is typically available in hotel bars, as it will be throughout the World Cup. And it will come at premium prices.
Take, for instance, Canada Soccer House, the party being held on six separate dates at a five-star Doha hotel and planned by Canada's soccer federation. A ticket purchase includes "complimentary licensed beverages and pub-style food." A three-hour pass goes for $249 Cdn.
Budweiser, a major World Cup sponsor, was set to be allowed to sell its products in certain areas around tournament venues and fan zones. But a last-minute decision by Qatari authorities on Friday forced the company to cancel plans to sell any alcoholic beer in or near stadiums.
Global Affairs Canada expects up to 25,000 Canadians will be there to witness the tournament in person. Some fans have grown accustomed to the organizers' unconventional approach to planning.
John Davidson, a fan from Toronto, told CBC he bought tickets to World Cup games in February. Then he "heard nothing and received nothing" for months, until his digital tickets arrived in October.
"We saw the credit card billing, so I knew that they had taken the funds." He said organizers provided "radio silence."
Davidson said the Canadian team's fan club, the Voyageurs, have proven a better source of information than Qatari organizers or Canada Soccer.
He's looking forward to attending all of Canada's games. "I'm 90 per cent confident that's going to work," he said.
The various controversies aren't front of mind for everyone.
"It's going to be incredible, momentous… [Canada] is going to make history," said Omar Razhar, a fan who spoke to CBC at a recent Voyageurs event in Toronto.
"I'm so looking forward to the trip to Qatar."
With files from Simon Dingley and Victoria Stunt