The World Cup’s Carnival Comes at a Cost
The good news is that it’s a yes from the gigantic, fire-breathing spider. It is hard, after all, to imagine a World Cup without its finest tradition: 50 tons of decommissioned crane arranged into the shape of a monstrous arachnid, pumped full of highly flammable fuel and then stocked with hopefully less flammable D.J.s.
The spider will form the centerpiece of one of the cultural highlights of this winter’s World Cup in Qatar: a monthlong electronic music festival called the Arcadia Spectacular, staged just south of Doha and boasting what the promotional material calls an “electrifying atmosphere, extraordinary sculpted stages and the most immersive shows on earth.”
The idea has been modeled, fairly transparently, on England’s Glastonbury Festival — the spider itself has been a regular feature there for a decade — and, though it was only announced at a relatively late stage in preparations for the World Cup, organizers expect it to draw some 200,000 fans. Each and every one of them should be warned: They will, it turns out, be “mesmerized late into the night.”
The spider, though, will not be alone, which presumably can be a problem when you are a nightmarish metallic behemoth.
The Arcadia Spectacular is not the only music festival to be tacked on to Qatar 2022. There will be another at Al Wakrah, hosted by a company called MDLBEAST: you can tell it will be cutting-edge, because it’s in block capital letters and also has done away with some of its vowels, the most old-fashioned type of letter.
Those events, though, form only a part of the entertainment tapestry on offer to fans over the course of the tournament. There is Al Maha Island, with its ice-skating rink, its circus and its theme park; Lusail, the first-ever city built for a World Cup, where the central boulevard will feature “vehicle parades” and futuristic light shows; the Doha Corniche, four miles of roving street performers and “carnival atmosphere”; and, of course, the beach clubs, the fan park and, around every stadium for every game, the catchily named “Last Mile Cultural Activation.”
Qatar, in other words, has been as good as its word: It promised it would put on a show, and it has delivered. No expense has been spared. No stone has been left unturned. Its plans for what might be termed the tournament experience are grand, and ambitious, and spectacular.
It is just a shame that they are not, in any way, reflective of what fans want or need, and that they so betray such a fundamental misunderstanding — on the part of both the local organizers and, more damningly, FIFA itself — of what it is that makes a World Cup special.
It is not the soccer that makes the World Cup, not really. There are times that the games are breathtaking and nail-biting and heartbreaking, of course, when what happens on the field is etched on to the collective memory like a bright, lasting tattoo or an aching scar. But more often it is something more ethereal. The World Cup, at heart, is a feeling.
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The most memorable thing about Russia, four years ago, for example, was not the French team that emerged victorious. It was not the Croatia side that carried a nation of five million to the cusp of ultimate glory. It was not even the sight of Germany, the reigning champion, crashing out in the group stage, or the baffling self-immolation of Spain.
No, what made Russia 2018 — particularly now, given all that has happened, given how unreal that month in the sun now feels — was Nikolskaya, the street in central Moscow that became a hub for fans from all over the world, full of flags and bunting and song. It was the sight of thousands upon thousands of Peruvians on the streets of Saransk, a red sash across their hearts. It was the sense that, even in a vast land of steppe and mountain and forest, you were never more than six feet from a Colombian.
That joy, that sense of togetherness, does not just touch those in attendance. It spreads like a smile to the many, many more watching at home. It provides not only the soundtrack to the games but the backdrop, too. It turns stadiums from sterile bowls into something filled with life. It takes a mere soccer tournament and turns it into an event. It cannot be forced. It cannot be commanded into an existence. It has to gestate, develop, ferment.
There are many reasons to criticize the idea of a World Cup in Qatar. First and foremost, there are the ongoing concerns about human rights, the queasy amorality of a tournament built by and on indentured labor. There is the troubling uncertainty, too, over quite how welcome gay fans might be, over whether this truly will be a tournament for everyone.
But though it pales in significance to those issues, it is worth pausing to consider what sort of World Cup this might be, too, because it is there that it is possible to glimpse most clearly not only who Qatar — and particularly FIFA — thinks the world’s biggest sporting event is for, but what it is.
It was in August, three months before the tournament was scheduled to start, that Qatar announced the Arcadia Spectacular, complete with its horrifying steel tarantula. It seemed odd to unveil such a major addition to the slate at such short notice, but there has been a distinctly last-minute air to much of the World Cup. It is as if all of the effort, all of the energy, was poured into securing the tournament and building the stadiums, so that only at the last moment did anyone wonder about all the people who might turn up to watch.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the accommodations that are supposed to house the million or so fans expected to attend in November and December. Even now, less than two months out, not all of the lodging being prepared for the tournament is available to book, for the very good reason that not all of it is ready.
And then there is the cost. The tournament’s organizers insist that Qatar has a “comfortable inventory for fans”: there will, they say, be “up to” 130,000 rooms to house fans every night of the tournament. There is “something to suit everyone,” too, with options ranging from hotels to villas and apartments and on to cruise ships, luxury tents, simple cabins and even camper vans. The cheapest option is “as low as $80 per room per night,” a spokesman for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said.
While that is true, it is not quite clear what that $80 buys you. Several organizations representing fan interests harbor significant doubts about what sort of facilities will be on offer in the cabin parks. It is not yet clear, one representative said, if those staying in the parks will be able to watch games on television, or quite how they would access food and water. (The Supreme Committee insists that there will be food trucks at each of the sites.)
Nor is it entirely obvious quite what proportion of the available accommodation could be counted as “suitable for the budget-conscious traveler,” as the website of the Qatar Accommodation Agency, the central portal for booking rooms in Qatar during the tournament, puts it. (The Supreme Committee did not disclose, when asked, what percentage of the available rooms in Qatar for the tournament might be considered relatively low-cost.)
There are, currently, apartments available for $102 per person, per night, for certain dates, though they come with a warning that availability is running low. Miss out on them and the price creeps up quickly. Other options start at $300 a night. A luxury tent goes for more than $400. A berth on a cruise ship starts at around $500. Hotels can stretch into the thousands of dollars for a single night.
It is not unusual, of course, for prices to soar during a major event. Just as they might at the Champions League final, say, or at the Super Bowl, fans expect to be gouged to some extent when they choose — and it is important to remember that it is a choice — to attend. The price of flights goes up almost instantaneously. A premium is added to hotel rooms. Private renters spot an opportunity. There is nothing quite like sports for a grand celebration of capitalism at its most rapacious.
But while that problem is certainly not unique to Qatar, it is inarguably more pronounced. South Africa and Brazil and Russia could draw on an existing network of cheap hostels and midrange hotels, as well as private homes available on Airbnb.
Their prices spiked, too, of course, and the photos — from bitter personal experience — did not always tally with the reality, but it was possible to attend all of those tournaments on a relative budget. The more adventurous could hire a van, or pitch a tent, or squeeze into a hotel room with far more friends than is advisable.
None of those options are available in Qatar. The existing hotel infrastructure is almost exclusively luxury. Many of the hotels that have been built for the tournament, bafflingly, are the same. The few hostels seem to be booked up. Belatedly, the authorities have permitted Qatari residents to rent out their homes privately, but doing so at the last minute does not exactly scream “low cost.”
This is the World Cup as Qatar envisages it, and seemingly as FIFA does, too: a premium product, a lifestyle experience that can be acquired at a certain price point, a playground for the corporate class, the itinerant rich, the luxury traveler. It is an event designed by consultants, for consultants, the sort of place in which a gigantic, fire-breathing spider is hired to disguise in spectacle the absence of sensation.
And this World Cup will, sadly, be poorer for it. A carnival atmosphere is not something that can be commanded into existence. It is not possible to take all of the stages and sets and logistics of Glastonbury and simply recreate them somewhere else, just as it is not possible to take the organic, authentic melting of thousands of fans from around the world and replace it with a series of “cultural events” and “sponsor activations.”
What makes the World Cup, what always makes the World Cup, are the people. Not the ones on the field, not even the ones in the stands, but the ones who come just to be there, just to sample it, to add color and sound and joy.
It is hard not to worry that many of those fans will have been priced out of Qatar, or excluded by virtue of not being allowed into the country without a ticket for a game, and that with them the feeling will change, turning the tournament into an ersatz version of itself, a tribute to all the things money can buy — up to an including a flame-throwing spider — and all of the things that it cannot.
Speaking of all the things that money can buy, Thomas Stratford has been wondering about Graham Potter. “If the main reason for introducing the transfer window in European soccer was to provide greater stability for clubs, what’s the rationale for excluding managers from a similar system?” Thomas asks.
There is, as we all know, only one thing worse than a bandwagon-jumper, and that is a bandwagon-jumper who then claims not only to have built the bandwagon, but invented the concept of motion. So I would hope that you would believe me when I say that this is something I have advocated for a while: There absolutely should be only one window in the season in which you can change managers.
And, seeing as we’re on a roll, Shawn Donnelly is here with another fine suggestion: “With so many Premier League teams paying huge money for Brazilian players, why don’t Premier League teams simply buy a Brazilian team and use it as a farm team for their club?”
They’re starting, Shawn. Manchester City is about to add a Brazilian club to its ever-expanding network of clubs, and I believe a couple of the investors at Crystal Palace are looking to do the same. It makes perfect sense not only for Brazilian players, but as a way to get a head start across all of South America.
And a final question from Erin Koch. “The commissioner of the N.W.S.L. was interviewed at halftime of the attendance-record breaking San Diego Wave v. Angel City match, and she very strongly emphasized her league’s independence as a differentiator and advantage compared to the W.S.L. in England. Is independence realistically likely to be an advantage? Wouldn’t it be better to have the financial backing of some of the world’s biggest clubs?”
This is a key question, and one that I’ll devote a full column to in due course, but my instinct is: no. Having a major (men’s) team bankrolling an operation offers an obvious short-term advantage, clearly. But my worry for the women’s game in Europe has long been that as long as it is attached to the men’s game, it will always be second priority. The N.W.S.L.’s model is healthier long-term, I think, at least in principle.