Nearly four and half years after the World Cup ended in Russia, the pinnacle sporting event takes center stage once again in Qatar. I was amongst diverse soccer fans waiting in long lines to board a full plane in Frankfurt, Germany. The lines ended up turning into a cluster of a mob, bursting to get their boarding pass checked and themselves onto the plane. Qatar 2022 is the most scrutinized World Cup in recent memory, and was this unbridled chaos at the airport another warning for more disorganized madness to come?
Right after a very smooth landing into Hamad International Airport, the flight attendant announced “Welkommen to Qatar” over the loudspeaker. Passengers responded with applause and whistles, for we had started an unprecedented journey into this region of the world. An err of caution between my group and the other attendees still existed, for FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, promised the “best World Cup in history,” but skepticism remained on how we would be received by the conservative host nation.
As we walked down the long terminal towards baggage claim, large World Cup banners and posters draped the ceilings. A glass train on the other side darted back and forth. At the end of the path, a massive screen played World Cup ads overhead. That jog of the airport felt like a science fiction movie.
In customs, our passports were reviewed and faces scanned by staring into a mirror while a red light moved vertically. Our carry-on bags were quickly screened again, and if one had alcohol in their bag, it was removed and the owner had to sign a form allowing the airport to hold onto the bottle until departure from Doha. Apparently this is due to Qatar’s 200% tax on alcohol.
After baggage claim, chauffeurs and staff greeted us, holding many signs like "FIFA Support Team" and "Wesley Sneijder." Pop-up shops lined the exits, selling FIFA Qatar 2022 merchandise, sweets, colognes and a vast assortment of cigarettes. Information kiosks and friendly English-speaking workers handed out maps of Qatar, digital cell phone SIM cards and brochures of free events one can access with their FIFA Fan Visa, known as a Hayya card. Through the energetic bustle, the feeling of worry slipped away, and excitement set in.
Under the dark midnight sky, our Uber glided through the lit highway, illuminated by purple light posts. Large soccer ball statues rested on the shoulder of the road, each painted in a different flag of one of the 32 participating countries. Far on the horizon the skyline of downtown glowed. The towering skyscrapers are of extreme modernity and a clear display of the small country’s extreme wealth.
We had arrived. Qatar wants recognition as a tourist destination. With so much corruption and blood to get to this point, the pending tournament will illustrate if 12 years was enough time for this country to prove itself as one of the great cities of the world.