It’s an afternoon about two weeks before the World Cup is set to begin and there is no one to be seen in the Doha Sports Park. No fans, no masses of people, not a soul around to hear the admonishments coming from the speakers.
Khalifa International Stadium, which will host England against Iran on Monday, the first full day of this year’s tournament, with Germany versus Japan to follow on Wednesday, lies shrouded in the haze of the midday heat. Aside from a couple of workers who have been assigned the task of painting a maze on the ground for children, the site is vacant.
The stadium loudspeakers are all dangling from their wires, but they are nevertheless operational. A man’s voice can be heard coming from them, reading out in English the "penalties" that accrue for various improprieties. An initial soundcheck ahead of the tournament.
The voice says: 10,000 rials for garbage thrown on the street.
The voice says: 10,000 rials for leaving behind leftover food.
It keeps going, listing other infractions, all related to littering, though when it comes to the penalty, it doesn’t really matter what one leaves behind: chewing gum, drink cans or newspapers, it all comes with a fine of 10,000 rials. Which is quite a chunk if change. The equivalent of 2,650 euros, to be precise.
But how strictly will it be enforced? How concerned are they about the crowds of foreigners that will soon be descending on their country?
On the one hand, you have Qatar, an inflexible host country that ignores human rights, treats workers like Western industrialized countries did in the distant past and still views homosexuality as a crime.
On the other is an indignant global public, with some having threatened to boycott the event, insisting they won’t be tuning in this time to watch the spectacle. In Germany, a number of bars and restaurants have said they won’t be showing the games in their venues.
Lusail Stadium ahead of the World Cup this month.Foto: Keita Iijima / AP / picture alliance
Visitors to Doha on November 11 wave Germany flags.Foto: Hassan Ammar / AP / picture alliance
It remains to be seen, however, if they will actually follow through once the games begin. What will happen if the German team is actually successful and advances beyond the group phase to the quarters, the semis and perhaps even the final? Will there still be people in the country like Bundestag President Bärbel Bas, who said in a recent interview that for her, mulled wine simply doesn’t fit with football? A statement, it should be said, that doesn’t make all that much sense given the fact that German football stadiums are just as full for December league games as they are in spring.
Will everyone continue to adhere to their principles once the ball actually starts rolling in Qatar?
The Qataris have said on a number of occasions that they have plenty of experience with Western double standards, not least from the Germans, who have never shied away from earning a bit of money in Qatar. A subsidiary of the German rail company Deutsche Bahn, for example, is heading up the construction of Doha’s subway system. Siemens, meanwhile, is taking care of the technology in the stadiums. Questions about human rights weren’t much of an issue in those deals.
Football Development Aid from Europe
The Germans, says one Qatari who has long had tight business relations with the country, are far more preferable to him than the French, who just want to sell their products. The Germans, on the other hand, he says, will also sell their technology if they find it advantageous.
Qatar has spent billions on preparations for the World Cup, but the country has also invested maximum effort in ensuring that its national team can actually compete. And part of that effort has entailed bringing in expertise from Europe.
Qatar is anything but a traditional football country, and it has never before qualified for a World Cup. It also doesn’t have a fan culture of the kind seen in Europe, with turnout for Qatari league games rarely more than 1,000 spectators. Which doesn’t mean, however, that the sport plays no role in the country.
By 7 a.m., the numerous artificial grass fields in Doha are already full, with players coming out early to beat the heat. On television, meanwhile, fixtures from the English Premier League are broadcast almost constantly, along with games from the Qatari Stars League, founded in 1963 as the country’s top league for men and home to 12 sides. But excitement alone isn’t enough to be able to compete in the World Cup.
Not far from where the Khalifa International Stadium now stands, the Qatari state opened up the Aspire Academy in 2005, a modern training center for top athletes. It was envisioned as a place to develop local players to compete at the highest levels without having to buy in talent from abroad – as Qatar did in 2015 when the handball world championships were held in the country.
Buildings covered in World Cup posters in Doha in November 2022Foto: picture alliance / Kyodo
When it came to football, Qatar wanted to go to battle with a team it had developed itself. Made in Qatar.
The decision to develop players in the country was taken following the failed attempt to improve the quality of local players by sending them overseas. Until just a few years ago, the Qatar Football Association had been sending its best players abroad to partner teams in Europe, such as Linzer ASK in Austria or the Belgian team KAS Eupen. But the association quickly realized that its players were having trouble establishing themselves and were spending most of their time on the bench.
So the QFA brought the players back home and imported well-known stars from European leagues, like Xavi from Spain or Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, to raise the level of play back home. The country’s own talent was given preferential treatment in the hopes that they would ripen into top players.
Once Qatar was chosen back in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup, the QFA started the process of constructing a team for the tournament. European trainers were brought in, including German talent developer Stephan Hildebrandt. He would go on to spent five years in Qatar, before returning to Germany in 2019.
We visited Hildebrandt, 49, in early September at his lakeside home outside of Berlin. Earlier in his career, Hildebrandt was head of Hamburger SV’s youth academy and then sport director for Energie Cottbus before he went to Qatar in 2014. He says he was looking for a new challenge. "It was difficult early on," he says. In Qatar, he says, there are only around 55,000 registered players, in contrast to several million in Germany. Hildebrandt and his assistants scoured the country’s schools, sports halls and clubs for talented players. The best players received a spot in the Aspire Academy. For the trainer team of Félix Sánchez, a Spaniard who now coaches the Qatari national team, the facility offered first-class amenities, including watered, artificial grass fields and huge fitness rooms.
A Football App for the Emir
But the players, says Hildebrandt, would continually find excuses for why they couldn’t show up for practice. "A traffic jam, the heat, a sandstorm, anything they could think of," he says. Most Qataris, he explains, are wealthy and don’t need to work particularly hard to earn money or advance in society.
At some point, though, the coaches were able to awaken the ambition of their handpicked players. The prospect of achieving fame through football became a powerful motivation. They trained up to eight times a week at the academy. Hildebrandt says that Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a football fanatic, was able to follow the team’s development through an app developed specifically for him.
Austrian security guards
In 2019, Qatar managed the shocking feat of winning the Asian Cup. In preparation for the World Cup in their homeland, the Qatari team spent several months in training camps in Spain and Austria. The players, though, are almost completely shielded from the outside world. A team of ghosts.
When the team spent the summer in Leogang, an Austrian town not far from Salzburg, the football pitch on the outskirts of town was carefully surrounded by screens so that nobody could see what was going on inside. The coaches, including the German goalkeeper trainer Julius Büscher, stayed in hotels in town and would walk to the pitch each day. The players, many of whom were lodged with families in the surrounding area, would drive to practice in rental cars.
No spectators were allowed in. And those who tried to get inside anyway were immediately intercepted by guards. "Please go, immediately! The Qataris aren’t joking!" Later, when the team was in Vienna, attempts to speak with players or coaches likewise proved unsuccessful. Instead of presenting the team’s stars, like team captain Hassan Al-Haydos, as ambassadors for the country and allowing them to speak about football in Qatar, they were hidden from view – likely out of concern that they might trigger yet another debate by saying the wrong thing.
A scene in Doha in November 2022Foto: Laci Perenyi / picture alliance / Laci Perenyi
Hildebrandt isn’t surprised. He is a cosmopolitan type and kept a journal during his time in Qatar, which is full of bizarre and thoughtful observations. Hildebrandt is fully aware of the deficits in Qatar, like the lack of women’s rights and the exploitation of foreign laborers. He met his wife in Doha, a woman from the Philippines who worked in a hotel and who sued her employer for poor treatment. She spent time in a pre-deportation custody, but a court then ruled in her favor, and she found a higher-paid job in a different company.
Hildebrandt is familiar with the dark sides of Qatar, the gigantomania and the unbridled consumerism of the elites. But he is also bothered by "Western cultural imperialism," the ignorance he sees in many Europeans and their self-righteousness. "I have a problem with the expectation that what we developed over centuries – the rule of law, secularization, open societies – should work perfectly all over the world in the blink of an eye," Hildebrandt says. He would like to see more understanding for a country that he believes is on the right track.
Hildebrandt is optimistic about Team Qatar advancing out of its group, which also includes Ecuador, the Netherlands and Senegal. Many of the preparation matches ahead of the World Cup were rather disappointing. In September, Qatar lost to Croatia’s U-23 national team 0:3 in a match played in Vienna.
Many Qataris nevertheless have high expectations for their team, including a former businessman who is a member of the Consultative Assembly, the country’s legislative body. Sitting in the lobby of the InterContinental Doha – The City, he says he can’t understand why the world isn’t more excited about the beginning of the World Cup. Why German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser is so critical of his country. And why Paris Saint-Germain, the team that the Qatar Investment Authority purchased, the team for which both Neymar and Messi play, didn’t advertise the World Cup even once. Not even with a patch on the arms of their jerseys, for example.
When asked if it would be a success if the Qatari team managed to make it out of the group phase, the assembly member quickly responds: "It would be a success if we made it into the final."
Is he serious? He smiles. But he doesn’t laugh.