Souq Waqif, the busiest market in the Qatari capital Doha, is the unofficial focal point for the Fifa World Cup, a place for visiting supporters to mingle, take selfies, drink tea and engage in good-natured sporting debate.
From Argentina fans in blue-and-white Arab headdresses to Cameroonians wearing capes embroidered in their national colours of red, yellow and green, supporters have crowded into its narrow streets and alleys, creating something of a United Nations of football.
“Going down to the souk, you see all the people walking around from 32 different nationalities,” said Paul Williams, who had travelled to Qatar to support Wales. “It’s been absolutely fantastic.”
The run-up to the Qatar World Cup was dominated by western media scrutiny over the Gulf state’s unsuitability as a host, corruption claims and its human rights failures, notably its ill-treatment of migrant workers and intolerance of homosexuality.
The tournament’s opening days appeared to confirm the worst fears, with technical glitches locking fans out of stadiums, supporters arriving to find their accommodation unfinished, and a high-profile row over whether players should wear the rainbow armbands that promote diversity.
Yet many fans in Qatar have shrugged off such controversies. After spending large sums of money to travel to the Gulf, they have preferred to let the football — including thrilling matches such as Saudi Arabia’s shock win over two-time champions Argentina and Australia’s surprise progress to the knock-out stages — eclipse concerns over human rights and any difficulties in buying alcohol in the conservative Muslim society.
“I just think there’s been a lot of scaremongering in the media,” Terry John, another Wales fan, said of the negativity that surrounded the tournament. “We’ve had a fantastic time.”
The unprecedentedly compact World Cup, with seven of the eight stadiums within the capital of the Gulf monarchy of 3mn people, has transformed the fan experience compared with previous tournaments. Even the city’s new 76km light railway system has become a place for fans to meet and swap stories.
The condensed schedule has allowed visitors to cram in numerous games in just a few days. Some World Cup regulars are beginning to look at the host cities for the 2026 tournament — spread over the US, Canada, Mexico — and groan at the prospect of hours spent in airports.
Fil Sollof, a company director from England, has been able to take in 10 World Cup matches in nine days. “We’re here for football, so we’re either in the stadium watching matches, watching matches in bars or sleeping,” he said.
Qatar’s eleventh-hour decision to ban the sale of alcohol around stadiums drew negative headlines, with booze generally seen as central to football fans’ match day experience. Yet many in Qatar say it has contributed to a less aggressive tone around matches and a family friendly atmosphere.
“It isn’t such a bad thing we don’t have alcohol [at stadiums],” Williams said.
For those in the corporate hospitality suites, the alcohol rule change has had no impact: fine wines and cold beers have been readily available before, during and after matches. Chauffeur driven cars have also been on hand to zip guests from one game to the next, enabling the well-heeled to binge-watch football in luxury.
Qatari officials are mindful that there is still much to do for the World Cup to be deemed a success. There have been empty seats at some matches, warnings over crowd control, including a surge of people at one fan zone, and the confiscation of pro-LGBT+ hats and flags the authorities interpreted as political symbols.
The Hayya app required to enter Qatar has also suffered glitches, causing some supporters to miss flights. In the United Arab Emirates, where many fans have based themselves, check-in staff said some people were not able to board each Doha-bound flight because of documentation problems.
Qatar hopes fewer games in the knockout phrase of the tournament that begins on Saturday will free up hotel and hospitality space for those fans already there or arriving, enhancing the World Cup experience further.
Abu Ghasem, a Sudanese expatriate, also pointed out that Qatar’s visa regime meant more visitors from the “global south” were able to attend than would have been possible if the host had been one of Europe’s traditional footballing powers.
Omar Taysir, a Jordan-based student draped in the Palestinian flag, said the authorities had been welcoming and his entry to the country seamless compared with previous struggles to enter the UK on a scholarship.
Other fans have reported how this World Cup has felt safe, compared with their visits to other big cities for football events. “We’ve not been worried about crime such as pickpockets,” said Benjamin Lim, 42, a lawyer from London. “And the relative lack of alcohol means I’m also not worried about my parents who are in their seventies.”
Away from the football, visitors have been able to enjoy some of Qatar’s tourist attractions, from “dune-bashing” in a 4×4 across the desert, visiting Doha’s museums and the carnival atmosphere in the souk.
Amin Chhaiba, a 27-year-old Moroccan-Italian, said he escaped the “fog and cold” of his native Bologna after securing tickets to seven World Cup matches in four days. “It’s a family friendly environment, a good place to bring kids,” he said as he visited Doha’s national library on a break between games.
Chris Ayres, a financial analyst from the US, agreed that the World Cup had “brought a lot of people together”.
“It’s been a fantastic experience, everything has been clean and I’ve felt completely safe everywhere,” he said. “Minus those whose team is having a rough game, everyone’s happy to be here.”