What sportspeople, migrant workers, transport staff in Qatar are saying
Coaches, players, fans and migrant workers tell us about their experiences in Qatar. Illustration by ESPN
With the European leagues now on break until Christmas, all eyes are naturally on Qatar, where the World Cup will kick off on Sunday. Over a decade since it won the bid to host the tournament, the Gulf nation, home to approximately three million people, has been transforming its infrastructure — from a new tram line to new stadiums, hotels and roads — in anticipation of this massive event that is unprecedented in the Arab world. It’s been an exciting time for the Qataris and the migrant community that makes up 90% of the country’s population.
But this transformation has also invited controversy, criticism and scrutiny, primarily around workers’ rights and the conditions under which tens of thousands of migrant laborers built the stadiums, roads and facilities that have made Qatar’s vision into reality. Reports show that low-income migrant workers, mostly from Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, fight to receive their wages, work in extreme weather conditions and lack proper centers to report abuses and complaints where they can make sure their rights are not being violated. Among other appeals, Australia, set to compete at the tournament, called for Qatar to change its laws and treatment toward the LGBTQ+ community, with same-sex relationships being illegal in the country.
The World Cup has also affected participation in soccer among the general public, particularly women. Although there are hurdles to making the game more accessible and inclusive in Qatar, advocates, players and coaches are being heard for the next generation of Qatari women to have more opportunities in the game, which depends on investment in pitches, training sites and a development pathway for them to become professionals.
Along the way to 2022, Qatar’s government agencies and local organizations are making reforms and assurances to address these matters. To get a deeper understanding of these issues, we spoke to people from different backgrounds who have lived and worked in Qatar about their experiences in the country, what they think of the World Cup’s impact and how soccer could transform the nation and people living there, on and off the pitch.
Each person brings a unique perspective: the coaches and players discuss the legacy of the World Cup on the host nation, the female players point to the strides being made in women’s soccer, the migrant workers explain the discrepancy between working conditions at FIFA and non-FIFA projects and the tram manager expresses concern at how the country will manage such an influx of people.
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Ciaran Kelly, technical director for Lusail Sports Club
Qatar, with its budding soccer system (the country’s FA was founded in 1960, though the Qatar Stars League wasn’t established until 2008), offers coaches and players an opportunity to gain experience, advance local clubs from the ground up and develop the country’s soccer ecosystem, and that’s exactly what Ciaran Kelly did at Lusail Sports Club since joining in 2017.
“I was the first person employed, and I started off as the coach, the admin, the marketing, social media and operations,” said Kelly, a former professional goalkeeper in Ireland. His first task was to get Lusail promoted to the second division while also developing their academy. Today, LSC, home to the stadium where the World Cup final will be staged, competes in the second division, and the academy provides programs for players ages 4 to 22. The training site, called Al Egla, provides communal facilities for these players, and during the World Cup, the Korea and Tunisia national teams will conduct training sessions there.
For Kelly, the country has some of the best soccer facilities in the world. “That’s hard to imagine that a country can do this in such a short space of time, but it is second-to-none,” he said. Qatar built seven stadiums for 2022, spending over $6.5 billion, with air conditioning and retracting roofs.
“I wholeheartedly believe this is going to be the best World Cup there has ever been, and the fan zones will cater for people that want to enjoy themselves in a different way.”
The fan experience isn’t the only thing that excites Kelly about this World Cup. “For me, the best thing is the legacy this investment is going to leave behind. And that’s where the grassroots clubs that will be here for a long time after the World Cup, the youth, will have access to these sites to support their football development.”
Ahmed Abbassi, development director, Qatar Stars League
James Rodriguez, Xavi Hernandez and Samuel Eto’o are just a few of the famous players who have played in the Qatar Stars League. Ahmed Abbassi, born and raised in Qatar and now the development director for QSL, wants to take the league to the next level, and he hopes the World Cup will be a catalyst.
The love for the game in Qatar has grown exponentially through academies, accessible pitches and promotion. While the Qatar Stars League attracts anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 fans depending on the teams playing, in September, the Lusail Super Cup match between Zamalek and Al-Hilal broke the attendance record in the history of Qatari soccer, with 77,575 fans watching on. The road to 2022 has not been easy, but Abbassi is optimistic about the short-term and long-term benefits of hosting a major tournament in a country where people’s passion for soccer is growing.
“For the past 12 years, our society has grown closer, undergone several challenges together as a community. Qatar is both modern and conservative at the same time, which is a beautiful mix, and this is something we are proud of,” Abbassi said. “The COVID-19 crisis was hard for everyone in the world, and it wasn’t any different for us, especially two years before the World Cup, with the uncertainty of when it would go. We even hosted the FIFA Club World Cup and the AFC Champions League to help Asia bring football back while adapting our methods for the times.”
When asked about underreported aspects of the World Cup, he mentioned the “unfair treatment by Western media in the past 12 years. Something that was being underreported was definitely the development and the growth in Qatar, the reforms, the infrastructure that we built, and all of the beautiful things that were created in the last few years for the local society and the expats of the country,” he said. Qatar made broad labor reforms after 2019, such as guaranteeing minimum wage for workers, regulations on overtime pay, conditions of employment and penalties against companies violating these laws.
Qatar’s revamp has also included its roads, airport, new residences, public transportation and the sewage system. “We’ve seen a lot of construction and changes,” Abbassi said. “We locals need several months to rediscover the new Doha [the capital of Qatar]. A lot of things have opened, hotels, parks, museums, and this will be the legacy of the World Cup.”
One can hear the excitement in the Qatari’s voice when it comes to his home country hosting the biggest tournament in the world. “I can’t wait to have millions of people coming to my country,” he said. “I can’t wait for people to witness the hospitality, the diversity we have in the country.
“Expect the amazing.”
Derek Lyon, PE teacher and soccer memorabilia collector
In Qatar, foreigners make up approximately 90% of the 2.5 million population. For people like Derek Lyon, who moved to the Gulf country from Scotland 17 years ago, they’ve seen big changes over the past decade when it comes to soccer.
“In the 2010s we’d struggle to get people to games, whereas now we get a few thousand, which doesn’t look like a lot for people in England or Scotland or America, but here that’s massive, a big percentage change. Football is more in your face now, where before it wasn’t as much.”
That goes for soccer kits and apparel too. “When I moved here, you’d look for a Qatar national team shirt or an Al Rayyan shirt, it was really hard to find. Whereas now Nike will have the Qatar shirt, and Al Sadd actually have their own club shop outside the stadium,” Lyon said.
Asked what he would tell someone visiting for the first time, Lyon said, “It’s welcoming, friendly, respectful. It’s a great place to live, one of the safest countries to live in the world. I have a family here, and we’ve never had any problems. And in this part of the world it will be a different World Cup, but it will be an amazing one.”
What excites Lyon the most? The fact that he already has tickets to eight group games and a semifinal. “The proximity of everything is amazing. I have a friend who is going to 20 games and is still trying to get more tickets.
“People go to a World Cup and see one or two games. And that’s a lifetime goal for them. Whereas here you can go to a game every day if you want to.”
Krishna Shrestha, returnee migrant worker
The buildup to the World Cup has also included controversy and criticism, with reports from human rights groups detailing exploitation, poor conditions and abuse of migrant workers, as well as the deaths of 6,500 laborers. The kafala system, now nominally defunct after calls for reform, took freedom and power away from employees to change jobs at their will.
Krishna Shrestha, a Nepalese returnee migrant worker who lived in Qatar for eight years, witnessed firsthand the working conditions that many migrant workers face and decided to advocate for them.
“Every Friday I had my day off, so I would go to the industrial area, Wakrah and many places where workers were residing,” Shrestha said. “I visited many camps and saw six to eight workers in one room. The hygiene and sanitation was so poor. Many of them were working up to 16 hours a day. And sometimes they would come back and the air conditioner would not be working.
“They also have to share a kitchen, and many have to cook on one stove, so there’s a queue to wait. And it’s very difficult if the workers from different nationalities and having different food cultures, because Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork.”
According to Shrestha, these practices take place across low-income professions like sanitation, food service, security and transportation.
However, he has seen changes, which he credits to international organizations spotlighting the issues and advocates calling for change. He mentioned two major reforms, one being the end of the kafala system, which gave employers control over a worker’s immigration status, and the other is the non-discriminatory wage system to standardize wages. Another major change is the Wage Protection System (WPS).
“They have made it mandatory to provide workers with an ATM card and a bank account,” Shrestha said. “The WPS system has made things more transparent, and people working the same jobs from different parts of the world in Qatar get paid the same and on time.”
But there is still plenty of work to do. “The local economy revolves around the migrant worker, and that is a huge contribution to Qatar,” Shrestha said. “So it’s not positive just for the other countries getting remittances from sending people to Qatar, but for Qatar itself.”
Migrants make up more than 90% of the country’s labor force across different sectors, from construction to taxi drivers to food preparation, and Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, which shows the nation’s dependence on migrant workers.
“I always felt alienated from the local community,” Shrestha said. “And because of this lack of interaction, the migrant worker is viewed as a commodity, as a servant, not as a human being. They hire the migrant worker as a service provider, as a security guard, as a nurse, as a maid, but they don’t see the other side of the migrant worker. We have social value, we have emotion, humanity, dignity, but since there is no integration and intersection between the local community and migrant community, they don’t see that.”
Asked what he would tell those visiting Qatar for the first time, Shrestha said, “You can expect beautiful weather, beautiful architecture of the stadiums and infrastructure development. You won’t be disappointed by the football, by the celebrations, but I am sure you might be disappointed by the migrant worker issues, social issues and human rights issues.”
Bilal Mohammed, former captain of Qatar men’s national team
During the mid-2000s, in the early days of his professional soccer career, when Bilal Mohammed would travel abroad and tell people he was from Qatar, they would ask, “Where’s that?”
“I don’t hear that question anymore,” Mohammed, the former Al Gharafa central defender, said.
As an ex-player who retired in 2019, he wishes he could play in this year’s World Cup, and as a citizen, he’s proud of his country. “Maybe in the beginning there were some doubts, but as a local, knowing how people are thinking here, I have no doubt that we will host the best version of the World Cup,” Mohammed said.
In 109 appearances for Qatar, Mohammed played in four World Cup qualification campaigns, won two Gulf Cups and scored the winner against Iraq in the 2006 Asian Games final. He’s seen many changes in Qatar’s soccer system. “The biggest change over time was applying professionalism in football,” he said. “Every year the system has improved.”
To give an idea of soccer’s growth in the country, the first stadium, Doha Stadium, was built in the 1950s, and the first national soccer club, Al Ahli SC, was founded in 1950. The first official league season was played in 1972, with matches played at Doha Stadium. On a national level, it was not until the late 1990s and 2000s that Qatar began to compete with other AFC teams and win tournaments like the Arabian Gulf Cup (2004), Asian Games (2006) and AFC Under-19 Championship (2014). Qatar’s investment into academies, facilities and clubs has attracted coaches and players from Europe, something which adds to the cosmopolitan feel of Doha.
To first-time visitors, he said, “I think anyone who comes to Qatar, they won’t feel like they are away from their country. There are so many nationalities, so many cultures. They will feel the hospitality.”
“This is part of the legacy,” Mohammed said about the long-term impact of the tournament. “The World Cup is just the beginning.
“We work in silence, and we are a small country, but even under difficult circumstances, we showed what Qatar is made of. We were the youngest team in the last Asian Cup, but we made it to the final and won, and it wasn’t easy. And maybe people don’t hear about football here, but we are constantly improving.”
Dwana Khalifa, player for Qatar women’s national team
As a girl born and raised in Qatar, Dwana Khalifa did not have as many opportunities and spaces to play as she’d have liked, and as a professional player and coach, she’s working to change that.
The major challenges are more private, female-only spaces for players in Doha, which would foster participation in the sport. In terms of the soccer ecosystem, a proper pathway starting from academy for women to play professionally into the national team is also lacking. It’s also difficult for women who have requirements around clothing and privacy to find same-sex training sites where they can play and balance their values. There is also the fact that women’s soccer in a professional and public setting is still new in the country. The women’s national team was officially founded in 2010, and the women’s league shortly after in 2012, both of which were missing during Khalifa’s youth.
“This was in 1999, 2000, and there was no place for me as a girl to play football outside of school,” Khalifa said. “And there was no national team back then. So I played football as a hobby in the street with the guys, and in 2009 I saw there was a video of the Qatar women’s national team and I was like ‘Wow, I must try it!’ But I didn’t know how to contact them.”
One lucky day, as Khalifa was playing in the neighborhood, the women’s national team coach was there. “She saw me and came to me and said she’d love to have me try out for the team,” Khalifa said. “I wanted that my whole life and that’s how it started.”
Khalifa, like others in the Qatari soccer community, has seen the culture around the sport transform.
“There is a big change in how society sees females who play football, because before it was like, if you want to play football, you have to play on a field that has no men there, it was a closed field,” she said. “But now, more parents are like, my daughter wants to play football, let’s take her to an academy so she can pursue her dream.” To foster the growth of the sport across genders, there are now more options and support for women to play in open spaces, as well as private, female-only fields if needed. The return of the professional league is also a catalyst.
After a two-year hiatus, the Qatar women’s soccer league returned in 2021 featuring six professional teams, with Al-Khor winning the championship. Alongside the league, there are local tournaments, which reflects the growing participation of women in the sport. However, because these games are not televised, there is a lack of exposure to the general public.
In terms of what’s next, Khalifa wants to coach and build a more inclusive process for the next generation. “I’m pursuing coaching and opening a new academy,” she said. “I want to make all the little girls have what I couldn’t have. I want the next generation of Qatari women players to compete nationally.”
Cardelle Frances-Dunne, player for Qatar Sports Club
Two years after moving to Qatar from the UK, Cardelle Frances-Dunne plans to stay for as long as possible in the country. A former player for the Millwall Lionesses in England, she is now a PE professional at a school in Doha and a player for Qatar Sports Club, where she’s “found a community of people from different backgrounds and it’s easy to feel a part of something there.”
Asked what she would tell someone visiting for the first time, Frances-Dunne answered without hesitation, “Go eat the food, walk around the streets and explore, but eat as much food as possible, the cuisine is amazing,” she said. “Go have a good time, speak to people in the street. Everyone is super friendly.”
Along with the food and hospitality, she noted that soccer is incredible in the country. “To play against big teams and tournaments is phenomenal,” Frances-Dunne said. “We played in an international tournament and we played Brazil and the U.S. That was amazing.” And as Khalifa mentioned, women’s soccer is starting to grow in the country as well, despite its challenges.
“The hope is that this World Cup will ignite the government to put more money into women’s sport to make sure girls are not left behind, but it is difficult because women play behind closed doors, so we’re already putting women’s sport behind in that regard,” Frances-Dunne added. “We played in a tournament which was open, but we only had seven girls who could compete because they weren’t allowed by their families, which is totally respected, that’s their culture.”
“That’s a challenge to try and change viewpoints to allow girls to reach their potential without any restrictions, and that includes allowing women and men to watch the game and showcase that the women’s game is really good.”
Colins Nortey, soccer coach
Colins Nortey moved to Qatar from Ghana as a worker in 2014, first in construction and then in security. Today, he’s a coach, with help from Generation Amazing, a social initiative by the Supreme Committee (the group overseeing the infrastructure, planning and operations for the World Cup) that uses soccer to bring people together on and off the pitch while promoting the sport in the region.
“We use football as a catalyst, to help people with communication skills, organization skills, how to meet people different from you and help people from different communities interact,” Nortey said.
“So much of the land was a desert, but now there is infrastructure everywhere. It was also not so common to see a man with a lady in public, but now it is different. Also, locals are socializing more with foreigners. These are some of the biggest changes I’ve seen.” He also noted that although Qatar might not be known for soccer, things are changing. “People here are known to wear their traditional clothing, but now you see more people wearing jerseys,” Nortey added.
For Nortey, when the World Cup starts, people will see how Qatar really is. “There are a lot of misconceptions around Qatar, that the country cannot hold the tournament,” he said. “But people will marvel at how they do. The World Cup euphoria is coming.”
Sidheeq, locomotive pilot at Lusail Tram
In preparation for the influx of millions into Qatar — which is roughly the size of Connecticut — the country prepared a brand new tram system to help fans get around and prevent inevitable traffic jams in the approximately 55-mile radius where all venues are located. Announced in 2011, the $35 billion railway and metro project took nearly a decade to build, with the long-distance railway project still left to complete. Doha metro, covering the capital city, stretches 47 miles and connects the international airport to the eight World Cup stadiums, and the trains can reach speeds up to 62 mph.
For Sidheeq, a locomotive pilot at Lusail Tram, another network in the newly developed area north of Doha, the biggest challenge will be the traffic. After moving to Qatar in 2012 from India, he’s experienced firsthand the traffic in the capital and where problems might come up.
“Qatar is small and there are a lot of cars already,” Sidheeq said. “Even though everyone will depend on the tram, I’m still not sure how they’ll manage. They might limit the driving hours or number of cars. Maybe some of them might live in Dubai and come. And also accommodations, I don’t think they are ready for that many people, even though they are arranging ships.”
With roughly 1.2 million visitors expected to enter Qatar and only 31,000 hotel rooms, the country is adding accommodations in the form of shipping containers, desert tents and, as Sidheeq referred to, cruise ships that will operate as hotels during the tournament, ranging from $200 to $400 a night. Altogether, fans have booked over 90,000 rooms in these various forms of lodges, with a total of 130,000 available. There will also be reportedly 50 flights per day between Qatar and Dubai, a one-hour commute for people traveling to see the games. The excitement is building up for the traveling fans and the host country.
There will be many firsts for Qatar, as well as for the people visiting the country. “During the World Cup, there will be amazing fan zones,” Sidheeq said. “There are also all types of cuisines and the new malls like the Mall of Qatar or Festival City. They can see luxury at its peak.”
As others have mentioned, it’s important to understand the Qatari laws and customs as well. “People should check the do’s and don’ts,” Sidheeq added.
He and his colleagues are ready for the big dance. “For the World Cup, the timing of the trams have been extended to 21-hour service, and our preparations have been going according to plan,” he said. “There is only five minutes to wait maximum, and a tram will take fans to their destination.”
Santosh, migrant worker
What advice would a migrant worker have for a person visiting Qatar for the first time? Santosh, a Nepali who has been living in Qatar since 2013, said “I would like to tell them to respect the religion and culture here. We have to respect their laws as well. The Emir has already announced that we don’t want anybody to disrespect their religion and culture.”
As someone working in health and safety, he’s seen the changes in the system as well as the road ahead for work that needs to be done. “Before, there were no means of safety in the construction field, but now with each and every contractor, there are designated people like myself to protect workers in the field,” Santosh said. “This is a major change while I’ve been here.
“Another change is the exit permit system, where people who wanted to leave Qatar needed a permit from the employer or company. That’s no longer in place.” And although the wider kafala system was abolished by the Qatari government in 2020, human rights experts report these changes were diminished.
Santosh also noted the discrepancy between FIFA projects and non-FIFA projects. “People working in the FIFA side, their living conditions are far better than those working in other areas,” he said. “They get better food, better living standards, but people who are working with non-FIFA projects have to share a room with six to eight people. Their toilet, bathroom and kitchen standards are not hygienic.”
Despite all these labor reforms in Qatar, Santosh had doubts as to how things will look long-term.
“One thing to note is that Qatar has tried to change a lot of things since it was awarded to host the 2022 World Cup, from the kafala system to wage protection system to exit permit,” he said. “So these things have changed due to FIFA, groups and organizers and advocates, but I am in doubt that when the World Cup is completed, whether those conditions will return.”