There is no World Cup artefact more iconic than the Argentina shirt Diego Maradona wore when he applied the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986 but like everything else in Qatar, it is a commodity — bought for £7million from the former England international Steve Hodge at a Sotheby’s London auction six months ago, to sit in an exhibition at this tournament.
The scene yesterday morning outside the Khalifa International Stadium, which exhibits this legendary jersey, said everything about the confected and artificial nature of this plastic World Cup. A crowd of 20 people, this correspondent included, gathered to see it, having paid £23 — yes, £23 — for a digital ticket which came with orders to arrive at the appointed hour.
There were Germans, Mexicans, Irish, Tunisian, an Argentina-supporting Indian and others. All football mad. Most wearing replica shirts. Yet there was to be no access.
An utterly unfathomable World Cup security rule decrees that ticketholders must be driven just a few hundred yards from some turnstiles, across the stadium perimeter, to see the shirt at the Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum. The bus had broken down. An alternative could not be found in a city swarming with World Cup shuttles. Access would not be allowed all day.
The frustration was compounded by the fact that the uniformed officials relating all this returned to the shade of their positions while the crowd, including a child, waited in the burning heat.
A female security official walked out from the shade and said: ‘You’re only allowed to go on the bus.’ A male security official emerged from the shade to say: ‘We are preparing to speak to the Supreme Committee.’ An exhibition official in a red track suit emerged from the shade to say: ‘Please come back tomorrow.’
There was little point arguing with these members of the vast tournament security force because they are officials only in name. Immigrant workers, thrown together into a unit designed to give an air of authority, who cannot deviate from their orders. A place in the shade was not on their list. The crowd just drifted away.
Infrastructure issues have hit Qatar, like unbuilt accommodation at Rawdat Al Jahhaniya
Diego Maradona’s 1986 World Cup shirt is meant to be one of the exhibits in Qatar this year
It was evidence, if any were needed, that this is a football tournament in name alone. Qatar wanted the kudos and global recognition of hosting the greatest show on earth but, one week in, it is clear that behind the facade of this glorified football theme park lies a monumental pretence.
The official attendance figures are just one of the fictions, exploded by the deserted concourses before Wales v Iran on Friday and the empty seats at Portugal v Ghana the day before.
They have thrown migrant workers at everything. They sit in uniforms and water the grass on lawns at spots on the Corniche, where no-one walks. They stand in turquoise ‘Event Team’ tops, with huge foam fingers and megaphones blasting out pre-recording messages —‘Metro this way’ — from morning to night. Often when no one is there.
In a cricket stadium at Asian Town, an entertainment and retail complex built for immigrant workers, there is a FIFA Fanzone for the people who have actually built this infrastructure, whose salaries do not remotely stretch to buying a ticket.
Signs in the street in Arabic and English state: ‘Thanks for your contributions for delivering the best FIFA World Cup ever.’ The food stalls were open and music was playing yesterday lunchtime for a midday start. The place was empty.
The places where fans are arriving seem an after-thought. We are a quarter way through a tournament and yet a quarter of the steel accommodation huts at the site called Free Zone have still not been built.
Official attendance figures have revealed some question marks over Qatar’s competency
This half-cock operation has the imprimatur of FIFA written all over it. Unpacked cardboard boxes containing self-assembly air-con units had the words ‘Alemadi Enterprises for FIFA Project’ printed across the front. We contacted Alemadi to ask why they had not built all the huts they were marketing at £170 a night. That was six days ago. Alemadi have not replied.
ESPN have reported that Qatar’s Supreme Committee, responsible for running the World Cup for the Qatari government, have offered refunds to supporters who booked a stay at another of these camps —the Rawdat Al Jahhaniya — only to find their accommodation was non-existent.
Qatar’s football team is out, eliminated in humiliating circumstances, the stadiums are not even full for the major games and the country finds itself at the centre of controversies about everything from alcohol to rainbow hats. Why do Qataris think the country has bothered lavishing £20billion on this?
The answer is Middle Eastern bragging rights, judging by a half-hour on the subject at Majlis Al Dama, a coffee house on the Souq Waqif which offers free Arabic coffee and a game of aldama, a blend of draughts and backgammon. Native Qatari Nagi Alnaimi offers coffee and pursues a narrative about how for too long Dubai has had a profile that the tiny state of Qatar has lacked.
Venues such as Stadium 974 are not necessarily built where convenient for local businesses
‘Dubai would not have the money it does if it weren’t for Qatar,’ he says. ‘Our Emir in the 1960s liked Dubai, so we helped them to grow. But they got ahead of us. Now it is time for us to show ourselves to the world now.’
Discussing alcohol proves sensitive in the Majlis but the view among many there is that it was never going to be permitted around stadium perimeters, despite FIFA’s promises to the contrary. ‘We don’t change our culture for 28 days,’ says Alnaimi. ‘The people said ‘no’ and the Emir knew it. How? Because he speaks to all men. It is like the relationship of father and child.’
Shams al-Qassabi, the owner behind Shay al-Shoomos and first woman to set up a coffee house in the ancient Souq says ‘profit’ is the benefit this tournament brings her. But she does not seem to see longer term gains. She’s just trusting the Emir, she says. ‘He gave me this building. All of it. I didn’t have to buy it,’ she declares.
Others are not getting any of the World Cup profit they expected to hoover up. Swarms of pop-up retail units, many seemingly owned by Qataris, have been established for this month, including dozens selling FIFA World Cup merchandise. But they are as empty as the open-top tour buses.
Staff members have said a coffee shop near Khalifa Stadium is badly placed for Metro traffic
Like the Cinnabon coffee in the Metro station near the Khalifa Stadium, which is definitely not shifting its lattes and small £3 buns. ‘It’s not on the walk from the trains to the stadium so it’s not been good for us,’ says a staff member. ‘We’ll be gone in four months.’
‘The Qatari men own this place. We are only the salesmen,’ says an Indian selling hijabs in the colours of all the World Cup nations in a unit at the mock Souq they’ve built, near the port where World Cup cruise liners are charging fans £300-a-night. ‘We’re only here for a month,’ he says.
The relentless pursuit of a surface gloss went on, yesterday. The army of Metro cleaners applied their mops to dust that was not there. Workers knelt down on all fours to scrub clean wooden benches that none would sit on. And Hodge’s Maradona shirt supposedly hung in a vast, empty exhibition hall.
A fan in a replica Ireland shirt, standing in the crowd outside, put it best. ‘You spend £200 billion on this tournament and you can’t let us walk to see the shirt,’ he said. ‘What kind of planet are you on?’