We first noticed that things weren’t quite as they appeared in Souq Waqif just one night before the World Cup began.
It was not just the modern market that looked out of place, but it was also an actual 2006-built replica of an ancient souq.
As if on a timetable, small groups of football “fans” were seen coming out of the metro each 20 minutes or so in faithfully sporting their team’s colours, singing chants, and stepping out of the metro.
They weren’t English, Brazilian, Mexican, Tunisian, or Tunisian, but they were mostly from Kerala. These were migrant workers who were part of Qatar’s construction crew.
They would then do a lap of the souq in groups and wave the flag of their team. We got up to investigate and diners were generally amused.
These were genuine supporters as they claimed to be blind, or fake fans organised by Qatar to create an atmosphere, as some media reported.
My producer and I spoke to several England “fans” and were convinced their football knowledge was too authentic to be faked. Others in our team disagreed.
We were told by them that they had waited years for this moment and couldn’t afford another World Cup. They had followed the Premier League for years, supporting Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, but they wanted to be able to enjoy it. Why not? This was the World Cup that they had built.
We did not meet any person who claimed they were paid to be there as some newspapers suggested. However, unfairly or not this episode was an introduction to Qatar 2022’s insecurity – a country just as image conscious as its multi-millionaire footballers.
Qatar is not normal. It has never been played in wintertime Europe; it has never been held in the Middle East and this tournament has never been so controversial.
It cost $300bn (PS247bn) and was played in just 28 days.
The football on the field was sometimes breathtaking. Moments that will be cherished forever include the victory Saudi Arabia over Argentina Ronaldo’s tears and Harry Kane’s missed penalty. And, of course, the remarkable progress Morocco made to the semi-finals. This was a significant moment for the Arab World.
Although it was often very hot during the peak of the day, the temperatures were still manageable.
Although annoyingly catchy, the official World Cup songs were fun to hear in malls, hotel lobbies, on the streets and at stadia.
A tournament that was centered entirely in one city offered many advantages: no air travel, no need for hotels to be moved constantly, and the game could not be more than 40 minutes away.
The seven stadia built entirely from scratch for the tournament were stunning pieces of architecture.
Al Bayt was designed to look like a Bedouin tent with a burning wood fire outside. It was truly amazing and unique. It will be converted to another shopping center after the tournament.
The start didn’t go smoothly. When FIFA President Gianni Intino gave his “I am” speech on the eve tournament , he was tone-deaf, and ill-judged.
Mbappe and Messi: Two generations of talent
England’s footballers are returning home, and Dave the cat is too
Some fans were unable to get into matches due to early problems with the digital ticketing system.
The official attendance numbers were clearly exaggerated. Even in the final stages, empty seats remained a fixture of matches.
The late decision to ban alcohol from matches was incoherent and violated a promise by FIFA. However, few were minded.
The bar atmosphere that is a hallmark of many World Cups was absent. Despite this creating a subdued atmosphere in the streets, I only saw two drunk supporters. One, an Iranian fan who couldn’t stand before his side, took on the United States. The other, an England fan, rested his head on my shoulder towards end of live broadcasts and then gave his predictions for the match.
The atmosphere was friendly and respectful among rival fans. This is not a bad thing.
Matches were also well-mannered on the pitch. Only seven players were suspended after receiving two yellow cards. Two red cards had been issued to only two players, one of which was given to Wayne Hennessey, the Wales goalkeeper.
England played more than 400 minutes before they were given their first yellow card. This was against France.
There was not one arrest of England fans, and Qatar promised that LGBT fans would be welcomed with some exceptions.
The most popular protest flag was not the rainbow but rather the black, green and white of Palestine.
It was a universal symbol of solidarity carried by many fans, paraded by pitch invasionrs, draped over supporters, used as a victory photo for the Moroccan team and displayed in hotels and streets alongside flags from the actual competitors.
Rumours circulated that Qatari organizers had secretly given them to supporters. They certainly didn’t turn a blindeye to other symbols of power.
Some regional powers have praised the Abraham Accords. Israel believes that the Accords show a softening in relations with past rivals. However, travel across much of the Middle East shows that this sentiment isn’t shared by ordinary Arabs. Qatar 2022 confirmed that.
The Arab world has briefly been united by the first Middle East World Cup. It has been unashamedly Muslim in tone and feel, and showcased regional culture. In keeping with Islamic tradition, the DJ at the opening fan festival was silent during the Maghrib dusk prayer.
The presence of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, in the royal box during the opening ceremony was an event of real political significance. Only two years ago, the royal kingdom had imposed a blockade on Qatar, but it now seems that this is over.
After a tough start, the Qatari hosts are now enjoying the final days of a successful tournament.
While it is important to celebrate the achievements, isn’t that also what “sports-washing” is? It is easy for the drama and joy of sport distract from uncomfortable realities.
We must not lose sight of the challenges this country and other countries in the region still face as the football jamboree ends.
In the build-up to the tournament we didn’t overlook the human cost of the World Cup infrastructure. We must not forget this now that the tournament is over.
I saw migrants every day staring out of the windows of Tata buses as they drove to their work sites.
It was striking contrast to the modern, air-conditioned metro and coaches that moved tourists and fans around the city. This is a land where the haves and the have-nots. More needs to be done.
The industrial fan zone was not allowed for foreigners to see, although many of the workers were there to watch the games. However, colleagues who did visit reported that they saw little of the excitement and colour at the main fan zones. Qatar has two worlds, one parallel and the other not as equals.
In a mid-tournament interview, Hassan Al Thawadi the secretary general of Supreme Committee finally admitted that the death toll from workers was between 400 and 500.
It doesn’t matter if that number is true, but it is more real than the ridiculously low claim that only six people died. This figure was repeatedly repeated by authorities for months.
Two more deaths occurred during the tournament: a Filipino worker was killed at Saudi Arabia’s training grounds, and a 24-year old Kenyan died when he fell from 8th floor Lusail Stadium’s Lusail Stadium following Argentina’s quarterfinal win over the Netherlands.
The organizing committee dismissed the first death “part of life” while questioning why journalists brought it up during the tournament.
It is a sign of a lack of concern for human life.
David Beckham was employed by Qatar for a multi-million-pound contract. His reputational damage will take many years to repair.
Qatar is now looking to the future, despite its past. What’s next for the tiny, but extremely wealthy, Gulf state now that the biggest show in world is over?
Sporting ambitions are still alive – the Arab Cup will take place here in 2024 and whispers of an Olympic bid.
Next year, the Formula One circus will arrive at the first of 10 Grand Prix. One of the World Cup stadiums in the city will also be used to host women’s sports.
They will also be looking at tourism. But unlike Dubai, their playboy neighbor, where they are increasingly dependent on package holidays from Instagram-obsessed Europeans seeking winter sun, Qataris will be focusing on Asian and African markets.
Indian weddings are a promising source of income. Another stadium will be converted into a series large wedding halls.
This is a clever ploy by a country that wants to create its own strong niche in a world crowded with equally ambitious neighbours.
The state’s energy exports have been worth $54.3bn (PS44.7bn in 2022) and will continue to find buyers in Europe, which is cash-strapped, during winter as the Ukraine war continues.
Qatar, like all GCC countries, is still trying to figure out how to diversify its income as the world moves away from fossil fuels.
According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), labour rights have “significantly” improved over the past few years. However, the ILO insists that there is still much to be done.
Qatar, however, should be an example for the Middle East countries, provided they are humble enough to do so.
It was worth it?
The short answer is yes. A senior Qatari might have answered the question differently a fortnight back, but the overwhelming feeling is one of accomplishment.
If I am correct in saying that the fans I spoke with were representative of most people, then thousands of people will return home with positive stories about Qatar. That is all you can ask from a host nation.
I don’t know if FIFA will award another winter World Cup. I think Saudi Arabia’s dream to host the tournament soon may end in failure.
Qatar deserves to be commended as a standalone sporting event. Although it was different, the world’s largest sporting event should not always be held in the same way as the Western powerhouses of football. This was not the case.
However, in the end, it was football and not politics that brought about changes in Qatar.
Would labour laws have been changed if it wasn’t for the World Cup? Would LGBT+ rights been relaxed? What if traditional regional rivals had come together as they did?
Qatar will, I hope, realize that the World Cup helped it become a more open, accepting, and compassionate society. More change is required and as the eyes of all the world begin to turn away, that change must continue.
This country is just part of a long journey to reform. The legacy of the World Cup is still being written.