For more than two decades, the FSA and our counterparts in Europe have provided support to fans travelling to see their national teams compete in World Cups and European Championships. The Qatar World Cup, the first to be held in a Gulf State and the first to be held in winter, was no different.
Throughout the tournament our Free Lions and FSA Cymru teams were running Fans’ Embassy services, helping supporters on the ground navigate Doha safely. Here Ashley Brown and Thomas Concannon talk us through the issues fans faced…
Rocky start: Qatar’s alcohol sale u-turn
Qatar had a battle on its hands to win hearts and minds, and that got off to a bad start on the eve of the World Cup when the state decided to ban alcohol sales at the tournament’s stadia (but not in the VIP sections) – despite previous promises that this would be allowed.
This last minute u-turn pointed to a deeper problem about the lack of communication and clarity from the organising committee towards supporters.
“The feeling going into the tournament was that Qatar should never have been given the World Cup,” Ashley said. “There were aspects of a traditional tournament experience that were missing because of its location.
“Despite that, there was a really positive experience of mixing with all the different nations’ supporters at bars and hotels. But that mix of colours and life was all tucked away – which was a shame – and apart from the official livery on the main boulevard you’d barely know there was a World Cup on.”
Back home, the alcohol question led to conversations – mostly amongst media and columnists – about how good supporter behaviour was a result of it being a supposedly alcohol-free experience.
This did not match up with the Fans’ Embassies’ experiences on the ground.
Ashley said: “We saw conversations in the media about it being an alcohol-free tournament that led to such good behaviour from supporters. But in reality there was plenty of alcohol, just not at the stadiums.
“People were able to drink as much as they liked before the matches, and with the late kick-offs many did.”
Thomas adds that while alcohol was available, it was often eye-wateringly expensive – with bars charging upwards of £12 for a beer. “The Red Lion was popular,” he says. “It was £7.50 a pint, the cheapest we found out there.
“Ultimately though we know that behaviour at tournaments is typically very good, Qatar being just another example. There were zero arrests in Qatar and in Russia where there were alcohol sales at stadiums, there were just three arrests of British fans all tournament.”
Travel and transport
Despite concerns leading up to the tournament that Qatar’s size and infrastructure would not be able to cope with the volume of fans travelling, the 2022 World Cup passed relatively smoothly.
In part, Ashley says, this was down to the work of supporter representatives pushing FIFA and Qatar for improvements.
“From the fans’ perspective the overall experience was better than expected,” Ashley said. “That’s partly because expectations were so low, but equally we have to credit the tournament organisers.
“Along with Football Supporters Europe we had many pre-visits before the tournament and produced reports for FIFA and the organising committee, pointing out issues and things that we felt needed to be addressed.
“A lot of those problems were addressed and it shows that what we do is worthwhile.”
Generally Doha’s transport provisions worked well according to fans on the ground, as new metros and buses were able to cope with the volume of supporters moving around the city.
“Transport worked better than expected, for us it worked brilliantly,” Ashley said. “It was effectively free throughout the tournament which was a huge bonus. You could just jump on a bus or metro anytime.
“The information made available was good but a lot of the official Qatar 2022 helpers on the ground didn’t have answers. But we were able to get the information we needed for each edition of Free Lions.”
The free transport coupled with Doha’s tight geographical layout, meant that transport costs for the tournament were kept low for those fans that chose to remain in Qatar.
Thomas told us: “Having the entirety of the tournament take place in one setting removes a lot of that travel pain. You didn’t have to think about getting flights or trains across the country for the next round.
“On top of that we were saving a lot on taxis which were really cheap – normally two to three pounds per journey and there was no tournament levy. Even a 45 minute taxi from the airport was only nine pounds.”
While transport in Qatar was cheap and pain-free, the same could not be said for accommodation which was hard to come by and unaffordable for many.
“There were a lot of accommodation issues in the latter stages of the tournament,” Thomas told us. “In the group stages there were more affordable options available – the cabins and villages were packed when the majority of the South Americans were there.
“But FIFA didn’t start offering this accommodation back up again once most nations had gone home.
“This is part of the reason we saw so many supporters travelling in and out of the country for each match, staying in nearby countries like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, some even went to Pakistan for the cricket – because it was cheaper than staying in Doha.
“It just highlights how the tournament wasn’t catered towards normal fans.”
Ashley adds: “It was disappointing, particularly the lack of hotels people could book at sensible pricing. Some hotels were charging $2,000 a night.
“The tented villages were a rip-off and we heard mixed reports on the porta-cabins. There was a definite need for cheaper accommodation.”
Ticketing: More teething problems
The opening games at the World Cup were beset with ticketing issues and huge, hours-long queues outside ticket help centres as supporters struggled to get into games.
Problems with the tournament’s digital ticketing app were to blame as fans reported tickets for games disappearing from the tournament app while attempting to get through stadium security and turnstiles.
“The ticketing problems at the start of the tournament were well publicised,” Ashley says. “At Iran vs England we had reports of England fans queuing for more than two hours to try and get into the game.
“Ticket office staff weren’t prepared for the problem and couldn’t deal with it initially – at one point the technology went out the window as a guy with a wodge of paper tickets was simply writing seat numbers on them and handing them out.”
FIFA eventually got on top of the problem and the issue of disappearing tickets was resolved for later stages of the competition. Despite these initial problems, FIFA’s resale platform came in for praise, allowing fans to buy tickets for games relatively easily.
“FIFA’s resale platform was a real positive,” Thomas said. “At the last minute you can buy a ticket at face value and go to a game on the same day.
“Coupled with everything being in one city, it meant you could go to multiple games a day which we’ve never experienced before at a tournament.”
Despite those positives, there were issues with how tickets were given out to supporters as empty seats, touting and mismanaged allocations persisted throughout the tournament.
“The England Travel Club had a core of 3,000 at each game but they were split up, in different blocks for the USA game. This wasn’t the case for other national teams as far as we know.
“And on top of that there were lots of neutrals and opposition fans in England’s sections who had purchased returned tickets, so these are issues we’ll be feeding back to FIFA.”
Thomas adds: “Touting became an issue at the end of the tournament. Touts were almost exclusively selling the high-end hospitality and VIP tickets. It was never the lower category tickets, like category three or four.
“It’s easy to see why there were a lot of empty seats in the category one and VIP sections at pretty much every fixture.”
Future of the World Cup – lessons for FIFA?
The 2026 World Cup will be taking place in Canada, USA and Mexico making it one of the largest World Cups geographically since the tournament’s creation. Additionally, it is set to be the first World Cup using the new 48-team format.
So what can FIFA learn from Qatar to improve future tournaments?
“When we look back at Qatar it’s clear that fans were way down the list of considerations,” Ashley said. “When you look at the cost of accommodation, tickets, kick-off times and so on it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.”
And compared with previous tournaments, our Fans’ Embassy reps are adamant that Qatar lacked that memorable matchday atmosphere you associate with big tournaments.
“The South Americans came in good numbers and made a lot of noise, but they were the exception,” Thomas says. “Most teams did not travel well.
“For England vs France the French only had a few hundred supporters there which for a World Cup is absolutely staggering.
“The atmosphere in the stadiums was flat compared to, say, Russia. Late kick-offs didn’t help – by 10pm you’ve already been out all day and it was draining.”
With a largely trouble-free Qatar behind them, the Fans’ Embassy team’s focus turns to the European Championships due to take place in Germany 2024.
- To keep up with their work follow the Free Lions team on Twitter and Wales fans can follow FSA Cymru here.