DOHA, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup is just two months away. Twelve years after being awarded the rights to host the tournament, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar has built the stadiums, opened five-lane highways and a $36 billion Metro system, and undertaken a huge construction effort on a grueling timeline to ensure that fans from all over the world can attend the four-week competition. But with the big kickoff just a matter of weeks away, how ready is Qatar to pull it off?
ESPN travelled to Doha earlier this month to assess the preparations and Qatar’s readiness to host the first Northern Hemisphere winter World Cup and the first to be held in the Middle East.
Every major tournament — World Cup, Olympic Games — takes place amid the backdrop of concerns of stadiums not being ready, security issues or expensive accommodation and travel for fans and Qatar is no different. The reality of Qatar 2022 is that, with the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador just 61 days away, there is good news and bad news as the clock ticks down to the 32-team tournament.
How ready is Qatar to host the World Cup?
When the 80,000-capacity Lusail Iconic Stadium staged a friendly between Egypt’s Zamalek and Al-Ahly of Saudi Arabia on Sept. 9, it was the last of the seven new stadiums (Khalifa International Stadium opened in 1976) built for the World Cup to officially open its doors. The Lusail will host the World Cup final on Dec 18, and it is a spectacular stadium: Think the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (both were designed by stadium architects Populous), but bigger.
All seven new buildings are ready and match-tested for the World Cup, while the stunning designs of Al-Bayt Stadium and Al Janoub, shaped like a pearl, will ensure that Qatar gets 10 out of 10 for aesthetics and stylistics. But just as the vast five-line highways and Metro system are ready to connect fans between the stadiums, with the longest journey no more than an hour from Al Janoub in the south to Al Bayt in the north, there is precious little in terms of fan amenities with just weeks to go before the opening game.
Some stadiums are surrounded by dust bowls — huge areas of desert, construction sites or empty car parks — with no hotels, shops or cafes for miles. The organisers told ESPN that all stadiums will be dressed with fan zones, food stalls and fun areas between now and the World Cup, but there is still plenty to do.
Accommodation will also be a worry. Right now, Qatar is a massive building site. Some hotels and apartments will be ready, others will clearly not be finished in time. Around the Lusail, a five-year project to build hotels, restaurants, shops and apartments is still years, not months, from completion.
Where will fans stay?
The Qatar Supreme Committee, which is in charge of delivering the World Cup, expects 1.3 million fans to visit Qatar during the tournament, a figure equal to half the current overall population of the country. And here’s the bad news: There won’t be enough space for all of them to stay in Qatar.
Earlier this year, Qatar agreed for 160 daily shuttle flights between Doha and the United Arab Emirates to allow fans to take the 40-minute flight from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The route is usually served by just six flights a day.
In Qatar itself, the limited options range from sleeping pods ($80 per night) to the opulence of Banana Island, a 20-minute boat ride from Doha, which is offering beach villas on stilts above the water for £2,500 per night. Sources at Banana Island told ESPN that bookings have already been taken from the families of France and England players. Meanwhile, 80% of hotel rooms in Doha have been block-booked by the Supreme Committee and FIFA for teams and officials, though 20,000 rooms are due to be released in the month before the tournament.
There will be tented campsites, similar to those offered at music festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury, with a deluxe tent on offer for $380 a night at Al Khor. But while thousands are set to be offered cabins at the Al Wakrah Camp, for $190 a night, they offer little in the way of luxury right now. At present, they’re rows of metal cabins in the desert for which the pictures speak for themselves.
The organisers insist they will be ready and appealing in time for the World Cup, but they will be a culture shock to many fans.
What’s the situation with alcohol? Can fans drink or not?
Alcohol is available in Qatar, but it is strictly regulated and will continue to be controlled during the World Cup. ESPN asked the Supreme Committee’s Head of Security whether fans could bring their own alcohol to Qatar and the answer was a firm “no.”
Supporters with plenty of cash to spare can visit one of the many luxury hotels in Doha and buy alcohol from the sports bars and pubs within them. Prices for beer in the Inter Continental Beach, Marriott Marquis and Kempinski Pearl — the USMNT have booked the Kempinski as their base — range from between £12-14 for a pint.
Alcohol will be available for supporters at stadiums before and after the game, but fans will not be able to buy a beer and watch the game from the stands. World Cup sponsors Budweiser will supply the beer at stadiums and the fan zones. The 40,000-capacity fan zone at Al Bidda Park in central Doha will serve alcohol on matchdays, but only after 6:30 p.m. until 1 a.m.
Non-Muslim residents in Qatar can secure a permit to buy alcohol from the Qatar Distribution Company, but there are no plans to ease restrictions for visitors to buy alcohol outside of hotels, restaurants and fan zones during the World Cup. Although sources have said that the authorities are unlikely to impose draconian measures on fans caught with alcohol outside authorised zones, drinking in public can lead to a six-month prison sentence or $800 fine.
How easy is it to get around Qatar and the eight stadiums?
Qatar is small — very small, at roughly the size of Connecticut or half the size of Wales — so there will be no arduous journeys for fans as in recent World Cups in Russia in Brazil. And the good news is that Qatar has built new roads and a metro system that connects all the stadiums. The Metro costs just 6 riyal ($1.65) for a day pass and it will be free for the duration of the World Cup for fans with match tickets.
The stadium air-con works then….
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Ubers are widely available and also inexpensive. A 30-minute journey from Hamad International Airport to central Doha costs just 40 riyal ($11).
Fans could ride the Metro between all eight venues and do them all in just over two hours if they were feeling adventurous. Getting into Qatar will depend on having a match ticket and downloading the Hayya app, which will enable fans to display their ticket, but is also required for access to transport, hotels, restaurants and some shops and malls.
What about the air conditioning? is that for real?
All the stadiums, with the exception of 974 Stadium, will have air conditioning for spectators and players during the tournament, although it may not be required due to temperatures in November and December unlikely to top 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature in the stands will be regulated to hover between 21-22 degrees Celsius (69-71 degrees Fahrenheit) during games. Vents at seat level will pump out cool air, so supporters might even need to take a coat to some games to avoid feeling a chill.
At pitch level, the air conditioning comes from huge vents at the side of the playing surface that will be controlled by 350 different sensors buried beneath the grass. They will measure temperature and humidity, while the air conditioning system will adjust the temperature accordingly for the players on the pitch.
The air will also be refreshed constantly to ensure optimum air quality, filtering out dust and pollen and also providing ventilation to help combat the spread of viruses such as COVID-19.
Dr. Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani — nicknamed “Dr. Cool” — designed the air conditioning system in place at the World Cup stadiums, including the system of making them eco-friendly. Solar farms located 30 miles outside of Doha will generate, on a daily basis, 10 times more electricity than required to power the air conditioning units.
Will Qatar be a safe World Cup?
Every major tournament or event is now accompanied by a major security operation, and Qatar will be no different. Due to the size of their security forces, expertise and personnel will be drafted in from neighbouring nations. The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force will help patrol the skies during the tournament, while the U.S. Air Base at Al Udeid will also provide security and intelligence support.
On the ground, Qatar has built a NASA-style control centre at Aspire Zone as the hub for controlling what happens inside every stadium during the World Cup. Each stadium has at least 2,000 security cameras to monitor turnstiles and crowd flow, while operators can zoom in on each individual seat for crowd control. Artificial intelligence programmes will trigger warning systems if crowd flow is too great, or too small, at specific times.
When asked whether the system could have prevented the crowd scenes which marred the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid in Paris in May, Niyas Abdulrahiman, the chief technology officer at Aspire Zone, told ESPN, “If a crowd situation forms, we will detect it and act proactively. Every nook and corner of the stadium is under surveillance.”
And while cybersecurity can never be taken for granted, a video screen highlighting the cyber threat level across the globe ran alongside the stadium data screens to emphasise their awareness of potential targeting of the system from hackers.
Will games be sold out, or will fans not travel due to cost and distance?
FIFA has sold tickets in stages for Qatar 2022, with 2.5 million already purchased by fans across the world. The biggest uptake has been from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but the United States, Mexico, England and Brazil have also been strong markets for ticket purchases.
The final 500,000 tickets are due to go on sale before the end of September, so Qatar 2022 should be played out to full stadiums, regardless of the teams involved. But while supporters in Europe and the Americas have voiced concern about the difficulties of getting to, and staying in, Qatar, the excitement in the Middle East and surrounding regions has been huge.
Organisers are expecting fans from Iran and north Africa to travel in bigger numbers than ever before, while expats living and working in Qatar are also expected to watch their nations in action. But if you want to go to Qatar and don’t yet have a ticket, you’ll need to be quick to get one.
Overall assessment: Will Qatar pull it off?
It will be a different World Cup than any that has gone before, but the crucial elements are in place now that the stadiums and infrastructure projects have been completed.
The lack of accommodation will be an issue. Sources told ESPN that the Qatari mentality is to leave things to the last minute, but that they always deliver. Sources also said that approach has jarred with some at FIFA who expect every project to run like clockwork.
There was little obvious concern in Qatar that time is running out for work to be finished, but fans may have to ready themselves for a tournament that lacks the off-field distractions of World Cups in different parts of the world. The facilities are already world-class and the climate should ensure perfect conditions for football.
But the big question is whether such a small country can cope with such an influx of supporters from across the world. That is the question that can only be answered when everything gets going in 61 days.