“You had your question”: That happened when I was reporting on the World Cup in Qatar

IMPORTANT POINTS:
  • Reduced from 32 teams to two, Argentina and France are fighting for the 2022 World Cup title.
  • There were numerous shock results, with the Socceroos, Morocco and Croatia causing excitement at various points.
  • From abbreviated interviews to special fan moments, SBS’ Ben Lewis shares his key takeaways from the tournament.
I was prepared that reporting in Qatar would be challenging.
Our media accreditation required us to sign a list of rules about where reporters could and couldn’t film. Private property was on the “no” list, which theoretically made filming most things pretty difficult.

Ultimately, we did not encounter the harshness of the authorities, although our Danish colleagues are known to have done so.

If anything, the police were usually willing to help and I was often approached by officers who wanted to chat and offered their help.
But there have been attempts to control the press – mainly by the PR officers of the people we interviewed.

It was clear that the organizers were frustrated with certain issues. In the run-up to the tournament, the working conditions of migrant workers, LGBTIQ+ rights and the possibility for fans to drink alcohol were discussed in detail.

Just days before kick-off, that frustration with the Western media was showing.
I was able to interview Mead Al Emadi, the project manager for the FIFA Fan Zone. After asking a second question about alcohol laws (), we were interrupted by a PR representative from the Supreme Committee.

“That’s it, you had your question about alcohol,” he told me.

It wasn’t the only interview I’ve had that got dropped. Soccer legend Yaya Touré looked distressed when asked about players’ plans to protest against Qatar .
“Gosh folks, give me a break from this,” he said.

And then there was Tim Cahill’s departure.

The Socceroos legend walked away after I asked him if he would support the release of a video of the Socceroos 2022 squad .
He wore several hats at this tournament; He was ‘Qatar Legacy Ambassador’, Chief Sports Officer of the facility used by the Socceroos and was appointed ‘Head of Delegation’ by Football Australia.

Given his roles, it seemed like a perfectly appropriate question.

How much for a cabin in the desert?

Friends who don’t work in the media seem to think I stay in 5-star hotels for assignments like this.

Our accommodation was booked through an agency set up by the Qatar Organizing Committee. It was on the outskirts of town, in a semi-finished apartment complex.

For the first few days, my cameraman and I seemed to be the only guests. Billboards outside the building showed what the area was to look like, but only served to highlight the incompleteness of the works.

It could have been worse – the building next to us had no windows.

It was our first sign that Qatar wasn’t quite as ready to host the world’s greatest sporting event as officials had claimed.

We spoke to countless fans who had paid the maximum amount to stay in trailer homes. Most had air conditioning, but they were sparsely furnished and often in awkward locations.

Many fans save for years to go to the World Cup. It is a special adventure that takes place every four years. And yet they had to pay thousands of dollars for substandard housing.

Dancing with Argentines

Having all the games in such a small geographic area is a great idea. This means fans from all over the world can come together to celebrate football while keeping transport costs low.

Some of our best moments in Qatar were with fans at Souq Waqif, the market in downtown Doha. There were Argentines beating drums, Mexicans singing songs and Tunisians dancing in the streets.

Argentinian fans celebrate World Cup results with drums to sing, dance and clap their emotions.

Argentinian fans celebrate World Cup results and express their emotions through song and dance. Source: SBS News / ben lewis

But the souq is not as big as it appears on TV and in the stadiums, the paint has often been applied thinly. Matches involving teams with large expat communities (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, etc.) had an amazing atmosphere.

Games without, including some Australian games, were much quieter. Neutral fans can make for a flat stadium experience.

What I didn’t expect was how many migrant workers from India, Bangladesh and Nepal were big Argentina fans. Around 30,000 supporters of the South American nation had flown to Doha. But there were more local supporters of Lionel Messi.

A highlight of our trip took place at a tiny Tunisian cafe. We ventured in hoping to find a fan or two to interview about the upcoming game against Australia.

It turned out there were dozens of Tunisian expats there, joining in chants, banging drums and waving flags before the owner insisted we sit down and have coffee. These are the moments that make a World Cup so special.

Tunisian fans clap and wave their arms to show their joy at a cafe in Qatar.

Here are some of the 30,000 Tunisian fans who were in Qatar during the World Cup. Source: SBS News / ben lewis

Enough whining, what about the pros?

The football was brilliant.

Australia achieved more than most expected, with teams like Morocco doing even better. There were real shock results. Saudi Arabia vs Argentina. Brazil fails against Croatia. The Moroccans are in Spain, Belgium and Portugal.

Socceroos fans in Qatar celebrate the Australian side's performance.

The Socceroos defied expectations in their performance at the World Cup, winning back-to-back games for the first time in their World Cup history and qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time since 2006. Source: SBS News

A tournament without alcohol in stadiums worked well. There were next to no problems with crowds and if you wanted a beer after the game there were plenty of places to get one.

Most backers we spoke to had a feeling there would be outside the stadiums and that was ultimately the case.
The first World Cup in the Middle East was unforgettable. There were signs that Qatar were expecting more fans.

The endless empty barricades at shuttle bus stops and venues were a sign that visitor numbers were not living up to government claims.

Empty barricades in a World Cup stadium in Qatar

Qatar spent around AUD 328 billion (US$ 220 billion) on World Cup infrastructure. Source: SBS News

Qatar is estimated to have spent around A$328 billion (US$220 billion) on World Cup infrastructure. The negative press the country has received may indicate the money was not well spent.

However, the fact that Qatar is considering an Olympics bid suggests that authorities still believe sport is a way to raise the country’s profile and boost its geopolitical power.
That Marry on Monday 19 December from 1.30pm AEDT.

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