Qatar

Eight stadiums, one Gulf capital and football’s big show

Your complete guide to the World Cup

“The winner to organise the 2022 World Cup is… Qatar!” With these words echoing around the Messe events hall in Zürich on December 2, 2010, the president of football’s governing body, Sepp Blatter, bestowed the game’s most prestigious showcase upon a small nation in the Persian Gulf.

Back then, its population was under two million, a sixth of the size of the city granted the 2018 final that same day, Moscow. Today, nearly three million people live in Qatar, 80% of them in the capital, Doha, location for the country’s only airport and urban transport network. All the 2022 stadiums but one, up in Al Khor, are on Doha’s recently unveiled metro system. Al Rayyan and Al Wakrah, where four stadiums are set, are within Metropolitan Doha. Lusail, location for the final, is (very) rapidly developing as an overspill from the capital just across the West Bay Lagoon.

Currently involving 32 teams, due to expand to 48 by 2026, World Cups are huge, sprawling affairs usually hosted in a dozen major cities where arenas long versed in staging prestigious football events can be reasonably easily adapted for the month-long soccer jamboree. 

Since the inaugural finals in 1930, they have always taken place in June and July so as not to clash with the European season. And, invariably, the world’s greatest sporting event after the Olympics is played in a country with a notable football pedigree.

Qatar is a case apart. The gasps around the Messe hall when Blatter opened the envelope were from delegates and dignitaries shocked that a petro-rich nation just over half the size of El Salvador had been chosen as 2022 hosts above the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea. True, the two bidders from the Far East had co-hosted in 2002. The US was later selected to stage that 48-team World Cup in 2026, while Australia welcomes the Women’s World Cup in 2023.

For all that, the challenges Qatar faced were huge. Of the 12 stadiums it had originally proposed, nine only existed on paper. Two had capacities of 21,000 – the minimum size specified for World Cups being 40,000. Dating back to 1976, the Khalifa International Stadium was duly redeveloped to accommodate the World Athletics Championships in 2019 and the Club World Cup, won by the Liverpool that same year – but would retain its 45,000 capacity. Another 35,000 is the minimum needed to stage a World Cup final.

This does not begin to address other key issues. Qatar is impossibly hot in summer. Whereas the bidding team had assured everyone that sophisticated air-conditioning systems in stadiums would allow the tournament to take place during the European fixture lull, doing anything in high season outside of the eight arenas eventually chosen requires Herculean depths of strength to endure.

Training in such heat is out of the question, potentially dangerous, in fact. And those doing the training are some of the highest paid athletes in the world, whose bodies are insured for huge sums of money.

Eventually, the authorities persuaded the European federations – whose clubs pay the spiralling salaries for the majority of the 832 players selected to join the 32 squads – to carve out a six-week break during their lucrative autumn/winter campaign, from mid-November to Christmas, in order for the tournament to start on November 21 and run for a month. Even then, the schedule was moved forward at the last minute to November 20 so that host country Qatar play the starring role in kicking things off.

And World Cups don’t come around too often. Baby boomers who grew up enraptured by TV images of Pelé and Cruyff probably have four or five such shindigs left in their lifetimes. Messi, Ronaldo, Modrić, Bale and Lewandowski, probably Neymar, too, are looking at their last dance on the world stage. This is, for all of us, a big deal.

Not that November guarantees cool climes. Temperatures tend to be in the high twenties and, to squeeze in a schedule even tighter than usual, seven games are timetabled to kick off at 1pm local time – 11am in Central Europe, 10am in the UK – and eight at 4pm. Two quarter-finals begin at 6pm, when it will still be humid.

That is assuming that a World Cup is just a series of matches, each watched by tens of thousands in a stadium and billions at home. It isn’t. A World Cup is a 24/7 global cavalcade of involvement, of fan zones and random bar encounters, of business pow-wows and sponsors’ promotions, of communal marches to matches and 45,000 Peruvians descending on Yekaterinburg, Russia, many selling their cars and houses to travel halfway across the world for 90 minutes of football and a lifetime of memories. (Peru lost 1-0 to eventual winners, France.)

Right now, no-one can even enter Qatar without a Hayya Card, only issued to ticket holders and those working at the event in some capacity. How many of those Peruvians had match tickets tucked inside their chullos? Not 45,000, you would wager.

Meanwhile, these Andeans and entrepreneurs, Australians and Ghanaians, Canadians and Danes, all need somewhere to be, to meet, to hang out, to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sensing there may be something to a World Cup other than the stadiums games are played in, Qatari organisers set up a sizeable fan zone at Al Bidda park in Doha. In nearby new-build Lusail, where that one large-sized arena was eventually sited, a 3,500-capacity Hayya Fan Zone will be centrepieced by a skating rink (!) for musical entertainment and ice ballet shows (!!).

Don’t worry, it’s not all Sleeping Beauty. Attached to Lusail, a floating leisure zone, Qetaifan Island, hosts the Qetai Fan Beach Fest, with big-screen broadcasts, live music and partying until 4am. It’s ticketed and numbers are limited to 30,000 – book early for World Cup final night (and Qatar National Day) on December 18.

This brings us onto the inevitable question of alcohol. No real beer will sold around or within stadiums, only the zero variety. At the Al Bidda park fan zone, lager goes on sale from a single, solitary outlet from 7pm, until closing time at 1am. 

Around Doha, beer, wine and spirits are served at exorbitant prices the various faux pubs and sports bars within hotels, the details of which you can find in this guide. Several are imposing a draconian system of charging people QR200/€53 just to sit in the bar, with a three-hour time limit and three drinks served. For the final, this fee goes up fivefold.

As for the hotels themselves, with 32 squads to accommodate, officials, media and, most of all, sponsors, to schmooze, Doha’s many high-end lodgings have long been earmarked for specific guests rather than the scarf-toting hordes. 

This is particularly acute in the case of Lusail, that rapidly developing zone of leisure, retail and real estate some 20km north of Doha, where two flat-out amazing hotels – three, in fact, as the scimitar-shaped Katana Towers contains two facing each other many curved floors up – have opened within days of the tournament starting. In total, they contain well over a thousand rooms and suites, a stroll away from the 80,000-capacity Lusail Iconic Stadium, stand-out arena for 2022. None of these luxury lodgings are open to the public for accommodation purposes until the tournament finishes.

At this stage, it should be noted that that gold-tinged, glowing bowl where the final will take place, like most of its co-hosting counterparts, is a moveable feast. Most of the seats will be taken out, shipped to a willing recipient and the smaller stadium converted for other purposes. Therefore, entering these stadiums, architectural wonders in their own way, will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They simply won’t be standing in this large-scale form after 2022.

The canny individual fan with flexible plastic can probably still find a room of some kind in Doha through booking sites such as lastminute.com but those happier in a camper van must wait until the Euros in Germany in 2024. If there’s no room at the inn, viable nearby options involve match-day shuttle flights – 40-60 a day from Saudi Arabia, 120 daily from Dubai, to experience what was first touted as the greenest World Cup ever.

Qatar’s only land border is with the vast Saudi desert to the south, a line agreed upon in 1965 and not entirely demarcated. Surrounding this peninsula 160km in length are the seas of the Persian Gulf. Thirty thousand Dutch fans can’t just pitch up, party and hail a cab the next morning. (On the plus side, Saudi Arabia has at least dropped its visa and vaccination requirements for Hayya Card holders during the tournament.)

Direct flights and ferries between Bahrain and Qatar, blocked during diplomatic row in 2017, have yet to be reintroduced. Those wonderful tales of Scottish fans heading to Argentina by submarine in 1978 sound fine around a pub table – the reality of 2022 is that a small, prosperous petrostate does not have the resources or the space to cater to all visitors in the kinds of swarms a World Cup generates. Not in hotels, in any case.

As the local hotel stock is mainly luxury, with very limited rooms available at least during the initial group stage, fan villages have been set up. Prices for a cabin, ie a container with the basic necessities, most notably a bed, start at QR740/€200. There’s usually a minimum stay of two nights and nearly all are booked but again, availability increases once half the teams head home on 3 December. 

Two cruise ships, the MSC World Europe and the MSC Poesia, have been pressganged into hospitality duty, moored at Doha’s main ferry terminal near the city centre.

If Russia 2018 involved Yekaterinburg and Kaliningrad, Sochi and St Petersburg, and 2026 will stretch from central Mexico to the west coast of Canada, 2022 is the equivalent of holding a World Cup in Greater Manchester with sand. You can reach seven of the eight stadiums in and around Doha by one single metro journey, usually followed by a shuttle bus between station and stadium. 

The one exception, the Wigan to continue the analogy, is Al Khor, 55km north of central Doha. One huge benefit of the Hayya Card system is that it allows the holder to use free urban transport for the duration of the tournament.

And Qatar’s claims of creating the first green-conscious World Cup have some truth to them. Take, for example, the remarkable, temporary Stadium 974, created from 974 shipping containers and cannily echoing the three-digit international phone code for Qatar. 

After the last game here on December 5, the boxes will be all packed away and possibly shipped to Uruguay should the hosts of the inaugural tournament be awarded the centenary event in eight years’ time. 

At this tournament, having wowed the Nou Camp and every major football palace on Earth for 20 years, Lionel Messi could, were Argentina to struggle in Group C, bid farewell to the international game at a ground effectively built of eco-friendly Lego. Lewandowski’s Poland are the opponents on November 30.

For a significant number of football followers, giving 2022 a wide berth is not a question of cost, logistics, heat or lack of beer at stadiums. The shocking treatment of the migrant workers who built all this infrastructure is an issue that will blight Qatar, and world football’s governing body, for many years to come. 

There are far too many families, particularly around the Indian sub-continent, whose breadwinners never came home from Doha, or who later died due to health conditions contracted while labouring in inhuman temperatures. All still await compensation, while the minimum estimated cost of staging this World Cup is said to be $220 billion.

There will be no mass boycott, as has affected the Olympic Games on more than one occasion. Protest by pitch invasion or drone can probably be expected. Other issues surround the laws and practices of Qatar, a monarchy with no permitted political bodies, whose constitution is underscored by Sharia law. 

Suffice to say that the violent, drunken scenes witnessed around Wembley on the day of the Euro 2020 Final will be dealt with very severely indeed.

Dutifully aware that the nation is putting on a first World Cup for the Arab world, much as South Africa successfully hosted the first African World Cup in 2010, Qatar has aimed to chime architectural detail with regional cultural heritage when commissioning the eight host arenas. 

The Lusail Iconic Stadium, designed by the UK’s Foster + Partners, is one gleaming example, a golden bowl inspired by the finely crafted dishes used in the Arab family kitchen, and the glowing lanterns of Ramadan. Up in Al Khor, the Al Bayt Stadium is laid out like a Bedouin tent, patterned in the traditional local fashion. 

The most globally renowned architect linked to the Gulf region, the late Zaha Hadid, modelled the Al Janoub Stadium on the dhow boats that once carried pearl divers from the nearby shores of Al Wakrah. Those with a window seat as they fly into Doha cannot fail to miss the distinctive circular shape of the Al Thumama Stadium, the same form as the taqiyah skullcap worn by menfolk at prayer.

Having been granted the World Cup as only 17 countries before them, and as the fourth-richest nation on Earth, Qatar was always going to push the boat out as far as tournament organisation was concerned. 

The price for doing so has been astronomical, in too many cases, far too high. It now needs to deliver on the promise that Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Thani, brother of the current Emir and head of Qatar’s 2022 bid team, gave that December day in 2010: “Thank you for believing in change… thank you for giving Qatar a chance. We will not let you down. You will be proud of us. You will be proud of the Middle East”.

STATION TO STADIUM

Arriving and getting around by public transport

First things first. During the World Cup, you cannot even enter Qatar without a Hayya Card, issued to ticketholders and to those employed in some capacity at the tournament. With it, you can use local transport for free and synchronise your match ticket in order to enter the stadium.

You’re not duty-bound to book your lodgings through Hayya, another of its key functions, but given the dearth of hotels, it’s probably not a bad idea. A further condition of Hayya Card application is otherwise proving your hotel reservation. Those coming for 24 hours may receive an entry permit for that length of time.

All visitors under 18 must be registered as a dependent of the adult they are travelling with.

The main entry point into Qatar is Hamad International Airport close to the centre of Doha and connected by metro. For more details, see Doha.

The only land border for cars and buses is at Salwa/Abu Samra. Free shuttle buses will be running between the immigration terminal and Al Messila metro station in Doha. Those coming by private car must have at least five nights’ accommodation booked beforehand.

Note that Hayya Card holders may secure their visa for Saudi Arabia free of charge. Keen on welcoming an influx of visitors – 40-60 flights a day will be shuttling between key Saudi cities and Doha – Saudi Arabia has dropped its Covid restrictions for international travellers. Visitors must pay for health insurance, however. For all Saudi travel regulations, see here.

From Dubai World Central airport, 120 flights a day are expected to be shuttling the short distance to Doha – so much for a green World Cup… Citizens of the EU, UK, USA, Canada and Australia may enter the UAE and obtain a 30-day tourist visa free of charge. For multiple entries during the tournament, Hayya Card holders can apply for a UAE multiple-entry visit visa, at Dh100/€26. For all other information, see Visit Dubai. Match-day shuttle flights are being offered from Dubai World Central by flydubai, from Sharjah International by Air Arabia and from Abu Dhabi International by Etihad.

Although the Hayya Card provides visitors with basic health cover should anything untoward happen, you are strongly advised to take out travel insurance before you fly.

The main forms of public transport around Qatar are the metro system (see Doha), a tram network, of which only one line has been opened (see Lusail), and buses and taxis overseen by Mowasalat – for details, see DohaUber also operates within Qatar.

All stadiums except Al Khor 55km north of Doha are on or easily accessible by the metro network, while shuttle buses will run from Lusail to Al Khor on match days.

The local currency in Qatar is the Qatari riyal (QR), currently trading at QR100 to €26, £23 and $27.50. Many places accept credit cards issued by foreign banks but street stalls, market traders and taxi drivers tend to just accept cash, so always keep a few small QR notes on you. There are coins, too, dirhams, but as QR1 is €0.26, these have very little value indeed.