Anyone who has holidayed in Qatar will be there for one reason and one reason only.
Expats and tourists are treated like royalty, spoiled by sensational hospitality and unrivalled service.
In three hectic days in the Middle East I was given a taste of the finer things in life; riding camels, fine dining and a stunning cruise around The Pearl in Doha, all before Liverpool’s clash with Flamengo in the Club World Cup final.
I was a guest at Qatar’s first ever alcohol-licensed festival, Daydream Festival, where I essentially watched a load of early twenty-somethings overdo it because they weren’t used to that level of booze being so readily available.
But what I really wanted to know was what the World Cup in 2022 will really be like for the average tournament going supporter. Stuff the prawn sandwich brigade, we’re talking the bread and butter of football fandom.
Will fans be able to drink? Where will they stay? Will it be too hot?
My enduring take from it all is one of ambition undermined by unbelievable naivety…
So what is there to know about Qatar?
It has next to no footballing heritage in the grand scheme of things, but back in 2010 it shocked the world by landing the rights to host the greatest show on Earth 12 years later.
My first observation was the temperature.
The Middle East is a frying pan but in the Winter the heat is more than manageable, peaking at around 24 degrees during the day and then dropping as low as 12 at night.
Any fears for player health, therefore, should be allayed, but it makes it all the more puzzling why extensive, outdoor air conditioning units have been installed at many of the stadiums. Fitting perhaps, given the country prides gimmicks and grandeur over necessity. Yet another show of unnecessary affluence, maybe?
Most of the venues are undeniably spectacular, although there are already questions over the Education City Stadium which was meant to host the Club World Cup yet wasn’t ready in time.
Official word was all the infrastructure was done, it was just security measures that needed to be approved, but I was told work on the 45k-seater ground only started six months ago. Hardly ideal preparation.
In terms of geography, European fans will be going from one extreme to another in the space of two years.
Next summer we have a European Championships dotted over 12 different host nations, but in 2022 the World Cup will effectively take place in one city, Doha.
Unlike in Russia where fans flew thousands of miles to their country’s next game, the maximum distance between the furthest stadiums in Qatar is just 55km.
On paper its geographical location is great, with an estimated two billion people within a four hour flight and, given its timezone, a further billion all classed as a prime time television audience.
Just five weeks ago the country opened its first ever metro service, connecting the airport and the newly developed stadiums via three pristine train lines. Tickets were available for the equivalent of 50p.
But organisers anticipate that around two million tourists will visit across the duration of the tournament, all essentially packed into one location.
So can they cope?
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy at the World Cup assured us the country would have 75,000 hotels by the end of 2021.
Airbnb is currently illegal but steps are being made to legitimise it sooner rather than later, while they have agreed a deal with two mammoth cruise ships to be docked in Doha, acting as temporary floating hotels.
Perhaps most intriguingly is the plans for the Qatari desert, one of only two places in the world where sand dunes meet the sea.
“There’ll be basic kitchen and bathroom facilities, all the way through to Glastonbury-style glamping,” an official told me. “To be able to wake up there (the desert) and then get whizzed up to Doha for the football will be a pretty extraordinary experience.”
Is that what football fans want? Waking up in a tent in the desert? Not for me, Clive…
The big A.
For the vast majority of fans across the globe, the match day experience wouldn’t be the same without a drink.
Qatar though remains a hugely conservative country that deems the consumption of alcohol in public illegal.
“You can’t buy alcohol here,” a Supreme Committee official told me. “Unless you manage to smuggle alcohol out of a fanzone or you’re a resident in Qatar and you have an ID that allows you to buy alcohol, you can’t get it.”
Alcohol will be served at licensed fanzones which, I was told, will be dotted all over Doha, while pints at the higher end hotels reached an eye-watering £11.
“One thing with previous tournaments is that the FIFA fanzones were less popular than going and drinking on the street,”the official continued. “Obviously here that isn’t an option.
“Drinking on the street is not culturally acceptable. It would be a case of telling people to stop drinking in a sensitive and sensible way.
“There is a major education programme going underway with our security teams over the reality of dealing with people who have had a few drinks. People are actually quite sensible when they travel.”
That last sentence was when I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
We were told that Qatari security officials were in Marseille in 2016 when trouble inflamed between England and Russia fans, were in Moscow for the World Cup and were even at Liverpool v Man City last month, all to monitor behavioural aspects of western fan culture.
Yet like in any walk of life, often it is the small minority who ruin things for the rest of us and there is simply no guarantee everyone will play by the rules.
The Supreme Committee talked of a ‘two-way street of respect’ and prioritising engagement with countries to ensure travelling fans were all aware of Qatari traditions and regulations.
But there will undoubtedly be some who choose to ignore any prior briefings and expect the red carpet to be rolled out for them the way they’re used to.
Those who do overstep the mark will be thrown in ‘drunk tanks’ attached to each fanzone, where they’ll be treated by medics until they’ve sobered up.
The official added: “There will always be a degree of people coming here to cause trouble, which is why the security forces need the experience to deal with them.
“Are we going to get hoards of tanked up guys looking for a good time? Are they going to come to Qatar with its reputation where you can’t buy booze? We’ll see.”
If there’s one thing we know about football fans, it’s they always find a way.
In the last week I’ve seen journalists brand Qatar ‘soulless’, ‘unauthentic’ and as a location a ‘disaster’.
I can’t disagree with any of those remarks. Outside of Doha’s pretty Souq Waqif market place it is eerie, vacuous and just so far removed from a typical place to host football fans.
But credit where credit is due; some aspects of its preparation deserve acknowledging.
Having observed Brazil and Russia’s efforts as host nations, the Supreme Committee consistently talked of avoiding any ‘white elephants’, be it unused stadiums or ghost hotels after the tournament is done and dusted.
Its move to create temporary accommodation may be naive but the concept must be applauded. Top tiers of stadiums will also be detachable, with the removed seats sent off to developing countries in Asia who need them more.
There is no denying Qatar will be the most innovative and advanced World Cup of all time.
Its infrastructure is already unprecedented whilst the players will benefit from being able to set up camp in one location for the duration rather than constantly have to up sticks.
But football is nothing without its fans and I couldn’t shake the feeling that its most important demographic was being neglected.
All these challenges. All these efforts to make it suitable for every creed, every colour and every size are commendable, but surely somewhere with a richer football heritage in the first place would have made more sense.
Three years is a long time but, considering everything I learned during this dress rehearsal, the World Cup simply won’t be football as we know it.