TV executives aren’t stupid. They know how to make something feel and look good.
That’s why the stretch of land in Doha that stands between the Souq Waqif and its huge adjacent mosque currently hosts a row of seven or eight TV studios.
As the world turns on its televisions to watch the inaugural Gulf World Cup over the next four weeks, these are the things they will see in the backdrop.
At 11:18 a.m. Friday morning, the second call to prayer of the day rang out through the empty streets and alleys of a traditional market believed to be at least 100 years old.
But when it stopped, a slightly more monotonous and persistent sound took its place. The sound of a cherry picker putting the finishing touches on the 2022 World Cup decorations on the nearby waterfront.
Doha certainly looks and feels ready for the World Cup, but it also looks and feels empty
The Doha World Cup is not about celebrating its past or its traditions. It is a question of a future, of a quest for world standing. That’s why so many millions of pounds have been thrown at a sporting event that’s already unlike any other.
Qatar was determined to present something different to the world from the start and here it is finally. A World Cup controversially won 12 years ago and subsequently built on exploitation and cruelty starts here on Sunday and the truth is that no one knows yet how it will play out.
Strolling through Doha on Friday and taking the city’s extremely efficient metro system to three of the eight stadiums clustered in and around Qatar’s capital was a bit like descending from the sky into the world’s largest theme park .
Nothing here feels particularly real. Everything has been waxed and polished like a new shoe. Across the bay from the Old Town stands the Pearl, a monument to Qatari wealth, its £1,000-a-night hotels pointing skyward. Out of reach for most but not out of sight.
On the Corniche, the long pedestrian walkway that borders the city, workers walked around picking up trash that simply didn’t exist. Why would he be when no one really seems to be here?
If football fans from all over the world are really on their way to this small state which, from the sky, seems about to be pushed into the Persian Gulf by Saudi Arabia, then they haven’t arrived yet.
Nothing here looks particularly real – everything has been buffed and polished like a new shoe
With temperatures already north of 30C on Friday morning, a group wearing Argentinian shirts sought shade under a huge skyscraper bearing an image of their very own Lionel Messi. On the other side of the Corniche, at the edge of the water, a little boy dressed in a Brazilian shirt was playing ball with his father.
In truth, they all looked like locals. There was no sense that the greatest football spectacle on earth was about to begin. Doha certainly looks and feels ready. He also looks and feels empty.
Further north, in the capital’s metro, the train suddenly emerged from darkness into light and the host venue for the 2022 World Cup final loomed. The remarkable 80,000 capacity Lusail Stadium is the centerpiece of the Qatar World Cup. From a distance, it looks more like a giant breakfast bowl nestled in the dust. Up close, it shimmers gold in the sun.
Next Tuesday, Lusail will host the first of its 10 World Cup matches. Messi and Argentina will face Saudi Arabia there.
It’s a stadium that has no character. But this World Cup was never about that. It has always been about modernity and Doha does all of this brilliantly. Qatar’s big sale – its only sale given the restrictions on trying to have fun here – has always been its uniqueness. This is a World Cup of unrivaled accessibility.
The Doha Metro runs north to south and east to west at high speed. It’s new and expensive and that’s how it is. And it works.
Qatar was committed from the start to hosting a World Cup that had all but the biggest hurdle to it all, which was that money could never buy authenticity
The trip from the Lusail to Stage 974 – built from that exact number of salvaged shipping containers – nestled on the water’s edge 25km away took around 40 minutes with one change. Walking back into town to the Education City stadium was another 20 minutes at most.
It remains to be seen who will be present in these admittedly impressive stadiums on match day. It was rumored on Friday that match tickets might be available at short notice to help fill some of the gaps.
However, there won’t be many. There never is. FIFA always finds a way to put bums on the seats every four years, but those who traveled from competing nations to be here might be fewer than in previous years and it’s not hard to see why.
Qatar is incredibly expensive. Nor is it as willing to abandon its conservative Muslim traditions to welcome visitors as many had assumed.
The 80,000 Lusail stadium that will host the final has no character
From a distance it looks more like a giant breakfast bowl nestled in the dust, but up close it glistens gold in the sunlight.
On Friday, for example, it was confirmed that it will finally not be possible to buy beer in and around the stadiums on matchday. Those looking to drink will have to do so in the fan parks for around £12 a beer.
With all that in mind, hopefully the football, at least, is good. The climate will play a role. It will be devilishly hot for the group matches which kick off at 1pm (10am UK), but a bit more tolerable from then on. Teams will certainly benefit from so little travel.
Qatar was committed from the start to hosting a World Cup that had all but the biggest hurdle to it all, which was that money could never buy authenticity.
The global spread of football continues and it is true. But this particular tournament has carried so much of what is wrong with our game for so long. Too much money. Too much dishonesty. Too false.
Qatar have always believed that they could erase all of that once football started and they could still achieve that. All this will undoubtedly look rather beautiful on the TV screen.