Inside Qatar’s ‘other’ fan zone: a night watching football with Qatar’s migrant workers | World Cup 2022

It has the big screen, the pumping music and the Fifa branding, but this is a fan zone with a difference. There are no visiting supporters, no women, no team colors and certainly no beer. The clue is in the venue: a cricket stadium on the edge of Doha. Inside, thousands of mostly South Asian low-wage laborers fill the stands or sit cross-legged on the grassy outfield.

It is a world away from the polished face of Doha that most fans will see. The stadium fan zone is within Asian Town, a shopping and entertainment complex purpose-built for Qatar’s migrant workers about 30 minutes by car from the city center. A vast expanse of warehouses, workshops and accommodation blocks stretches out for miles on one side, housing hundreds of thousands of workers, often in grim, crowded dorms.

On a wall near the entrance to the fan zone, a banner in Arabic, English and Hindi reads: “Thanks for your contributions for delivering the best Fifa World Cup ever.”

The entrance to the fan zone for migrant workers in Doha, Qatar. Photograph: Pete Pattison

Many here probably played a part in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament, but gratitude has its limits. While some match tickets went on sale for Qatar residents for just 40 rials (£9), no one the Guardian spoke to had managed to get one. Any that were available were far too expensive for workers who earn as little as £225 a month.

Without a match ticket, they are unable to register for a Hayya card, which is needed to enter the main fan zones in Doha. Even if they could, the efficient and cheap Metro does not reach this part of the city, forcing workers to take more expensive alternatives.

The fan zone, and Asian Town itself, highlight the parallel lives that many migrant workers inhabit. Critics say it entrenches divisions, the unspoken message being: you can have your restaurants, shops and fan zone, as long as you don’t come to ours.

In the migrant worker fan zone in Doha, Qatar, people watch the Spain v Costa Rica match at night on a big screen.
People watch the Spain v Costa Rica match in the migrant worker fan zone. Photograph: Pete Pattison

As the match between Spain and Costa Rica kicks off, Dilip Kumar Mandal from Nepal looks thrilled. “I come every night. I like the environment,” he says. Asked which team he is supporting, he pauses and says, “The red one.”

“I’d like to be in a stadium, but I have no money. Whatever I earn, I have to send home for my children’s education,” he adds.

Mandal, a mason, is just happy to be there. Before the World Cup began, 350 of his workmates were ordered home, as his company, like many others, wound down its work on instructions from the government.

As Spain scores their first goal, he punches the air. “Yes! I knew they’d score,” he says, his face glowing red in the light of the giant screen.

Sitting nearby, Stephen* from Ghana works at the airport, transferring inflight meals to the planes. It’s his day off, but during the week, “All I do is work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep,” he says. Like Dilip, he could not afford a match ticket, but unlike him, he speaks about football as fluently as the Spanish play it. As another goal slides in, he enthuses about Ghana’s chances: “I just hope I can get off work to watch them,” he says.

As half-time approaches, hundreds surge towards the stage, and are soon rewarded, not by another goal, but by an MC and her four female dancers. She gives a shoutout to, “My African friends”, before reeling off the other countries that make up the bulk of Qatar’s migrant workforce: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Close up images of visitors to the migrant workers fan zone on the edge of Doha, Qatar, during an evening World Cup match.
Some workers are happy to be in Qatar for the World Cup having seen coworkers sent home pre-tournament as firms wound down their operations. Photograph: Pete Pattison

There are no team colors or flags on display. With the exception of Ghana, none of these nations qualified for the World Cup and so decisions about who to support appear to be determined by a favorite player or the color of a shirt.

In the stands, Mohammed Malik from Bangladesh says he comes to watch the matches every day. He has nothing better to do. “My company stopped sending us to work because we can’t access our workplace during the World Cup. They’ve stopped paying us too,” says the 42-year-old carpenter.

Yam Kumar Rajbanshi, a forklift operator, is another regular in the fan zone. “I come every night. I love football more than cricket. Brazil will win,” he says confidently. Rajbanshi, from Nepal, said a ticket for a match cost too much – half his monthly salary – but he did not seem to care. “It’s better to watch here!”

Migrant workers watch Qatar v Ecuador on a big screen from the cricket ground fan zone on the edge of Doha.
Migrant workers watch Qatar v Ecuador from the cricket ground fan zone on the edge of Doha. Photograph: Marko Đurica/Reuters

As Spain strolled to a 7-0 win, the workers who helped make it possible, saunter back to their dorms, a band of South Indian drummers sent them on their way.

* name changed to protect the individual’s identity

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