Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Qatar faces a tight squeeze for its compact World Cup

With just over three years until the opening match, and with more than 1 million foreign fans expected, the smallest country to host a FIFA World Cup might struggle to find enough rooms

By Tariq Panja
Published: Nov 16, 2019

Qatar faces a tight squeeze for its compact World CupA stadium under construction for the 2022 World Cup in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 6, 2019. With just over three years until the opening match, Qatar is grappling with an uncomfortable reality: the struggle to house more than a million foreign fans expected to attend
Image: Olya Morvan/The New York Times

DOHA, Qatar — Since the day Qatar was named the host of the 2022 World Cup, it was obvious the tournament would be different from the ones that had preceded it.

For a start, Qatar is a tiny country, and Doha, its capital, has never hosted an event on the scale of the World Cup. Qatar has billed this as a positive: the chance to put on the most compact tournament in history, a soccer celebration lacking only the quadrennial hassle and expense of frequent air travel and hotel hopping.

But with just over three years until the opening match, and with more than 1 million foreign fans expected to descend on Qatar during the monthlong tournament, the planners tasked with World Cup lodging and ticketing continue to grapple with an uncomfortable, and inescapable, reality:

Qatar, the smallest country to host a World Cup, might struggle to find rooms for all the expected visitors.

Publicly, organizers say this will not be an issue. A frenzied building and rental program is expected to deliver the 100,000 rooms that FIFA requires through a mix of hotels, apartments, desert campsites and even ships that will act as floating hotels. With eight stadiums and several fan zones — none of them more than an hour apart — “fans will be able to watch more than one live match whilst also enjoying the country’s fan zones, beaches, restaurants and cultural attractions, all in a single day,” said Nasser al-Khater, the chief executive of the local organizing committee.

Yet even with all of those options, organizers are still expecting an extremely tight squeeze, particularly during the group phase, when all 32 teams — and their supporters — will be present at the same time.

On the busiest day, World Cup officials predict 160,000 visitors to be in the country. Concerns have grown so much that unlike previous World Cups, where host nations hoped visiting fans would stay on a few extra days as tourists, Qatar is instead hoping to entice visitors to attend multiple games on a single day and depart once their tickets are gone.

The officials’ plan, they believe, will help alleviate two concerns: preselling as many tickets as possible will help minimize the prospect of empty stadiums, a nightly backdrop that embarrassed organizers of track and field’s recent world championships in Doha, while also reducing the number of traveling fans — and the need for thousands of extra beds.

In essence, organizers have linked their housing strategy to their ticketing one: They want each pillow to correspond to a seat at a game.

Gulf politics, however, are making a thorny problem even more difficult. Housing excess World Cup visitors — and finding things to keep them occupied in the days between games involving their countries — has become more of a pressing concern because of an ongoing blockade of Qatar by a bloc of its regional neighbors.

Those neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had once been seen as allies in putting on a broader Gulf World Cup. Instead, the blockade means cities like Dubai, a 30-minute flight from Doha, are no longer a ready-made option for spillover housing and entertainment. Flights between Qatar and the UAE have been suspended for more than two years, and the dispute has shown no signs of ending. (Those conditions remain subject to change at any time; this week, for example, national teams from the blockading countries announced they would participate in a tournament featuring Gulf national teams that will be hosted in Qatar later this month, a rare thawing of relations.)

Ticketing is a separate concern. At previous tournaments, the local population has made up at least 40% of ticket buyers, and large blocks of seats — many in the lowest-priced ticket category — were reserved for domestic fans.

The domestic-foreign split of ticket sales is expected to continue in Qatar. But the extreme wealth of the local population may require a change in strategy; at previous events in the country, Qataris, like citizens in other wealthy Gulf States, have shown a preference for VIP sections over cheaper tickets amid the masses. At a recent Asian Champions League semifinal game in Doha, for example, a number of fans tried to gain access to the most exclusive section of the stadium even though they had seats elsewhere in the largely empty stadium.

One plan for the World Cup is to flip the usual allotment and make a number of Category 1 and VIP seats — the most expensive tickets available for general sale — exclusive to Qataris, according to an official briefed on the ticketing strategy.

FIFA, which is responsible for ticketing, said the final ticketing program remained under discussion.

Qatar is also wrestling with ways to strike a balance between conservative local sensibilities and the more festive, often alcohol-infused experience foreign fans have come to expect. To that end, another category of tickets is likely to be reserved as a so-called family section, where tickets will be sold to family groups. The classification is common in Qatar, even in some restaurants, where groups of men are seated separately from women and children.

And as at the world track championships, where there was fierce criticism about empty stadiums, organizers are making plans to fill out crowds by providing tickets to some of the imported workers who have toiled in the fierce heat to build the stadiums, roads, hotels and other infrastructure necessary to host the World Cup.

For the track championships, tickets were typically assigned to representatives of foreign embassies or community groups, who handed them out to workers as they boarded buses to the arena. An official responsible for a particularly raucous group of Ethiopians said this was done to ensure that workers who were given free tickets would actually turn up at the event.

World Cup organizers have signed memorandums of understanding with more than 40 embassies or missions to provide tickets in a similar manner in 2022.

A run-through of what fans can expect in 2022 — from housing to ticketing to a test of Qatar’s rules about alcohol consumption — arrives in December when Qatar hosts FIFA’s Club World Cup. The tournament — featuring regional club champions from around the world, including Liverpool, the reigning European champion, and Mexico’s Monterrey — will be played at some of the recently completed World Cup venues.

To ensure bigger crowds, Qatar’s national airline has offered free match tickets to fans who book flight and hotel packages through its website.

The airline is a FIFA partner. It’s likely similar promotions will be offered before the World Cup.

©2019 New York Times News Service