Tue. Dec 6th, 2022

Taken on November 13, 2022, this photo shows fireworks exploding in the sky over Doha ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football tournament. (Photo: Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Qatar’s World Cup will be a first in Arab lands, but despite excitement in the Middle East, enthusiasm is not universal in a region often combined with passion for football.

While the November 20-December 18 tournament is geographically close for many Arab fans, the high costs pose a problem as crises and economic hardships have gripped much of the Middle East and North Africa.

“Accommodation and transportation costs are exorbitant,” said Makram Abed, who manages a 40,000-strong Facebook fan page for Tunisia’s national team, one of four Arab teams that qualified along with Qatar, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

Abed told AFP that Qatar can “offer preferential prices” to fans in the region, but said it subsidizes the cost of accommodation available on the Qatari official portal.

Abed was one of several fans contacted by AFP in a straw poll of fans across the region, whose population is more than 400 million.

World Cups have traditionally attracted more wealthy fans than weekly club football, whose fan base is often working-class, football historian Paul Dietschy told AFP.

Dietschy said the World Cup in Qatar “reinforces” the universal trend of a widening gap between rich and poor.

Even in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which has the Arab world’s largest economy and borders Qatar on land, supporters said the costs were high.

“You have to take out a loan to participate in three (group) matches,” said 25-year-old Saudi student Mouhannad, who asked not to be fully identified.

Subsidized flights

According to FIFA, Qatar topped the list of countries approaching three million for World Cup ticket purchases.

Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are also among the top 10 ticket buyers.

In fact, according to the Qatar organizing committee, Saudi Arabia has booked more accommodations than any other country.

Considered a favorite of Arab football, Egypt has not qualified, but some still plan to travel, including Amr Mamdouh, who is looking forward to his Gulf visit.

“Flights to Qatar cost half as much as flights to Russia, the host of the 2018 World Cup,” he said.

Thousands of Arab expatriates living in the Gulf will also take the daily air transport of more than 160 shuttle services between Qatar and its neighbors.

Fadi Bustros, a Lebanese based in Dubai, will take a one-hour flight to Doha and return the same day.

But Bustros fears that a “true World Cup atmosphere” may be lacking due to the controversy over Qatar’s hosting and the unprecedented schedule in winter rather than summer, where many fans prefer to travel.

In Morocco, authorities have announced subsidized flights to Qatar, but it still costs around $760. For Yassin, a 34-year-old Moroccan who participated in the 2018 World Cup, the discount is not encouraging enough.

“A World Cup is synonymous with a beautiful atmosphere, human encounters, carelessness and celebration,” he said.

“Qatar does not meet these criteria.”

‘Soft power’

Yassin bought tickets to watch Morocco, but canceled his trip due to “restrictive” rules in conservative Qatar, where entertainment options and access to alcohol were limited.

Moroccan Wassim Riane, who also participated in the World Cup held in Russia, said he would skip a trip to Qatar, “a country without a football history and a culture of celebration”.

Football landed on the Arabian peninsula in the 1970s with the influx of oil companies and expatriate workers – much later than the rest of the Middle East, which was subject to French and British colonial rule.

In Egypt, the first football clubs were established after World War I.

According to Dietschy, football fandom follows two trends in the Arab world.

“Football is popular and attracts spectators,” Dietschy said, in countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Syria and Algeria.

But in other countries, including Qatar, football is “more of a televised show” and a “soft power” tool.

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