My decision to attend the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was not made lightly. I agreed with the many voices raised to condemn FIFA’s selection. Qatar’s human rights record is abysmal. But, I also thought the selection of Russia four years ago was worse and I did not attend.
I’m originally from Croatia, where Luka Modrić is God of Football and this would be my last chance to see him lead the Croatian national team on the pitch in what is to be his last World Cup appearance.
It was not to be missed.
Decision made, I embarked on the process, which itself was extremely daunting. There was negative press reporting every day, and new hurdles and challenges announced daily – the suddenly required COVID test (eventually dropped), the ridiculous dress code regulations (I can attest no one followed), the ban on alcohol around the stadiums and more.
I worried I made a terrible decision, but with the money already spent, it was too late to turn back. And a good thing, too, as this trip very quickly became an experience of a lifetime.
No expense spared
The flight was long, but comfortable, and I was processed through the Doha’s Hamad International Airport in an easy and organized fashion. I took one of many affordable cabs to my hotel apartment where I met my three friends who were joining me for this adventure.
The Qatari government had spared no expense in building out Doha – having launched their National Vision 2030 more than a decade ago – with some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. The sun set early in the winter and the city was glowing in lights, lights, and more lights everywhere. I imagine most people spend the summer days inside due to the heat, so the city really is built to be enjoyed at night.
It reminded me a lot of Las Vegas; one giant amusement park for the masses.
Everything was bright. The metro was brand new and clean. Miles of sidewalk barriers were all around, decorated with World Cup signs, efficiently corralling visitors and managing traffic. Thousands of hired workers in their FIFA apparel and foam hand gloves pointed the way at every turn, most often repeating possibly the only phrase they knew in English: “Metro, this way.”
This phrase quickly turned into yet another soccer chant sang by the millions of visitors to Doha as they traversed to and from the stadiums. Alcohol was actually very easy to find, although the prices were daunting. The fan zones had Budweiser beer for about $16 U.S. after conversion. The hotel bars, of which there were plenty, had beer, wine, and cocktails, but most would cost you between $25-and–$35 per drink.
Our solution – a small Turkish restaurant near our apartment served chicken shawarmas at about $5 a piece. We ate a LOT of shawarma over the next two weeks to support our excessive alcohol lifestyle!
‘Welcome to Qatar!’
The Qatari people were extremely friendly and many of the women would tell us “Welcome to Qatar” as we walked by them on the streets. The hired workers were also friendly and always eager to assist, although their assistance was often not helpful since their language capabilities were limited.
Overall, everyone appeared to be excited to see guests from all over the world arrive in the city, and eager to engage with them all, especially to practice their English, a unifying language.
We took time daily to chat with the workers and volunteers, thank them for their work, and of course, to take selfies.
They conversely stopped fans, as well, decked out in national flags and jerseys for the same reasons.
There was NO shortage of selfies all around.
We also talked to the staff at some of the hotels where we watched the games, and asked their opinions on the negative press we had read. For the most part, they had a lot of positive things to say about Qatar, with one young man hailing from Rwanda emphasizing he doesn’t “like” his job in Qatar, he “Loves” his job.
Many of them worked in beautiful resorts the likes of which they had never seen. They said Qatar was very safe and beautiful, unlike many of the neighborhoods in which they had grown up. Some had worked there for years, and others had come temporarily for the tournament to make extra money. One of our Uber drivers was happy to inform us he made double the normal profit since the tournament bagan, and was excited to now have enough money to go home and save his family business that had been going through tough times since COVID.
Yes, there’s a dark side
Not everything we heard was positive. Many admitted that life in Qatar is not normally the way we were seeing it now. That this was a show for the world to see, a beautiful facade, and that living there for many of them was hard. Qatari nationals, they said, treated them like they were less than human, and they had no rights if they wanted to take grievances to courts.
They simply had to put up with the abuse.
They were thankful for the Western nations who had spoken out against FIFA and Qatar, and shone the light on human rights abuses. They wanted Western nations to continue to be vocal, as things would not change otherwise. But, at the same time, they were happy so many people had come for the tournament as it allowed them to make extra money and help their families back home.
An important thing we also noticed was that most of the people around us were from the Middle East and Africa. This was not a typical World Cup attended by “the white” people, and in fact, my friends and I were a minority.
In the end, magical ….
There was something deeper to think about in all that. Qatar may have its problems, but this location allowed a different group of people to experience this incredible event. People who probably could not afford to travel far for such a luxury.
This trip was such a unique experience that made me consider a lot of things differently, and I am really glad to have taken the leap.
In the end, we explored the markets, we indulged in amazing regional food, we learned a lot about Qatar’s history, and of course, we drank, watched games, sang football songs alongside thousands of others who paraded around the streets in their flags, shouting their own chants.
It was magical.
Qatar deserves praise for putting together an amazing World Cup that was safe, extraordinarily beautiful, inclusive, and full of respect for all nations attending. I hope the world keeps shining a light on human rights abuses because we had learned from those we spoke to that it does make a difference. At the same time, I believe a lot of good came out of this even for the people in that region of the world.
At least, I am certain the joy I saw on everyone’s faces was genuine.
Suzana Knezevic is a NJ native with a passion for travel and international affairs. She loves history and aims to visit all the places she read about in her childhood. She has had the pleasure of traveling to about 40 countries so far, and hopes to visit many more. She also loves hiking, dining, and wine tasting. Suzana currently resides in Washington, D.C.