RAS ABU FONTAS, Qatar — The first thing that strikes you about the Rawdat Al Jahhaniya Fan Village, a 30-minute drive outside central Doha, is the lack of shade. Just after 1 pm here, fans are watching Switzerland vs. Cameroon on the big screen, but the bean bags and chairs in the fan zone area are completely empty. Some fans have found a shaded area next to a giant football, but as the sun beats down, the rest are watching from the on-site Starbucks, choosing to buy a latte just so they’re able to sit under a small parasol on each table.
There are four official fan villages in and around Doha, all of them built specifically to host the thousands of fans traveling from around the globe to watch World Cup games at Qatar 2022. Fans can stay in a Bedouin tent at Al Khor, the cheapest option at around $170 a night, and there are three cabin villages, at Zafaran, Free Zone and Rawdat Al Jahhaniya.
At Al Khor, the facilities are basic, with communal washing areas and extra charges for Wi-Fi, but the cabin villages — there are 1,500 on site, with room for up to 3,000 visitors per day — at least offer showering facilities in each cabin, at a starting price of $207 a night. But they’re not really cabins. They are steel containers converted into two-bed sleeping rooms; if you can envisage the shipping containers stacked high at a busy port, that’s what they look and feel like.
It’s also why they have been nicknamed “Portacabin Cities” by those staying there. In the midday Qatar heat, the metal walls are scorching to touch.
Earlier this week, ESPN reported that the Supreme Committee charged with running the World Cup for the Qatari government had offered refunds to supporters who had booked a stay at the Rawdat Al Jahhaniya camp only to find their accommodation to be nonexistent because the project was unfinished. In a statement, the Supreme Committee blamed “operator negligence” and said the camp had “not met the required standards as advertised to fans.” In addition, those fans who had booked unfinished accommodation were told they would be allowed to stay for free for the duration of their stay in Qatar.
Not only were the fans’ accommodations unfinished but some arrived to see toilets and washbasins still waiting to be installed, with construction workers on site attempting to hastily finish their work.
But how bad are the fan camps? They offer budget accommodation to fans who are prepared to save on their sleeping arrangements simply to watch games at the World Cup. Having visited the Rawdat Al Jahhaniya camp this week, ESPN spoke to supporters about their experience so far and the response was largely positive.
“The accommodation is OK,” Majid, a Manchester United fan from Saudi Arabia, told ESPN. “It is basic, but the air conditioning works well, so the cabins are not too hot.
“I am staying with three friends, and we are enjoying ourselves. There are supporters from all over the world — Saudi, Iran, England, Wales — and we are having a good time. It is no problem. Even the Argentina fans were friendly after we beat them.”
When you walk around the camp — although there is security at the entrance, there are no checks on people coming and going — there are neat rows of cabins linked by fake grass walkways. The camp is given some color by flags of the competing nations in Qatar, with cabins painted brightly in red, yellow and orange, but at the far side of the camp, there is a sizable area that is still a literal building site, with little sign of work being done.
In the finished area, cleaning staff are going into the cabins, changing towels and sheets, but it is quiet aside from those who are watching the football. There is a tented dining canteen and an outdoor fitness area consisting of cross-trainers, weight machines and treadmills, but the only person using it in the heat is a young child who is having fun trying to sprint faster than the treadmill will let him go .
It’s also an alcohol-free camp, so the Starbucks stall appears to be the main hub of activity. Suhaib, a Liverpool fan wearing an England shirt, spoke to ESPN while waiting to be served, and he’s keen to defend the standards.
“I am booked in for 12 days, and it’s fine,” he said. “I was a bit worried before I came out here because I had read the scare stories in the media and seen the pictures, but I’ve been to a few tournaments with England and this is no worse than others I have been to. When I went to France for Euro 2016, the fan accommodation was more expensive and didn’t have the facilities we have here.
“Yes, there are a few little gripes — the air con is noisy, so you have to turn it off at night — but everyone is getting on and making the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s less than £200 a night, so you can’t expect five-star luxury, but I have traveled here with my brother, who is disabled, and the people here have been very helpful and accommodating wherever we have been. I have no complaints about the hospitality of the Qatari people.”
Booking the accommodation can be difficult. ESPN has tried to reserve a cabin for a one-night stay, but when availability appears on the official site, it states a minimum of two nights must be booked and then shows no availability once you click the button to pay. In a phone conversation with the fan site helpline on Thursday, the response was that the system was “under maintenance” so “please call back tomorrow.”
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Two Wales supporters who did not want to be named spoke to ESPN while watching the Switzerland game, and said they were happy in the camp. “Things are what you make them,” one said. “We could complain about the sporadic nature of the cleaning service or the noise [of the air-conditioning]but for us, this is part of the World Cup experience.
“It’s a bit like being at Glastonbury [a major music festival in England]. Everyone is here for the same thing, and we all knew what we were booking. It looks a bit bleak when you arrive, but once you speak to the people in the next cabin and start talking football, you forget any concerns.”
There is perhaps some irony in that. While FIFA attempts to polish the image of football and with PR spin from president Gianni Infantino, the actual force for good is those supporters who have been thrown together. Despite cohabiting the most basic and austere accommodations, they’re embracing the moment, sharing stories and creating friendships with fans from other nations and all kinds of cultures.
So far, football seems to be bringing people together in metal containers in the desert. Yet surely you won’t be seeing that in FIFA’s glossy appraisal of Qatar 2022 after it’s over.