With six months until Senegal take on the Netherlands at the Al Thumama Stadium in the opening game, uncertainty hangs over the World Cup in Qatar. It extends beyond fears over human rights to practical concerns: how many fans will attend the tournament? And what kind of experience will they have there?
The first question is the most pressing and the answer not definitive. Signs do seem to be pointing in a clear direction, however, and a carnival of global football fans in the Gulf looks unlikely. At the time of writing, Fifa has sold 800,000 match tickets to fans. This, from a capacity of 3.1m seats, is just over a quarter of the total. In Russia four years ago, 2.5m tickets were sold to fans from a capacity of slightly more than 3m. There is some way to go if organisers hope to match, or even get close to, that total.
At the end of this month Fifa will reveal the results of its second tranche of sales. The governing body publicised the fact that it received 23.5m ticket requests as part of that process but observers note it does not commit anyone to a purchase and that tickets for knockout matches can be sold several times, with ticket holders whose teams are knocked out along the way refunded.
Reports from different countries seem to back up the bigger picture. England have not sold out their allocation for their group games or prospective knockout fixtures. Only the match against (potentially) Scotland or Wales has got close, with two of three ticket categories oversubscribed. Reports from France suggest their travelling support is going to be less than a quarter of what it was in Russia.
For those involved, obtaining a ticket kickstarts a second period of uncertainty. Only once you have a ticket can you apply to the Qatari government for a permit to enter the country, known as a “Hayya Card”. You cannot book a flight before then and must visit the Qatar Accommodation Agency to find a place to stay. Since it launched its online portal in March there has been confusion as to what kind of rooms are available and at what price.
The hunt for promised $80-per-night accommodation is often fruitless, unprepossessing “Fan Village Cabins” start at $200 a night, and AirBnB-style apartments come in at about $1,000. To what extent these options will be refreshed once the second stage of sales is confirmed remains unclear.
Calculations by Football Supporters Europe predict that this will be the most expensive World Cup for travelling fans by some margin. Its figures suggest a cost of €2,770 for staying for three group matches, compared with €1,000 during Russia 2018. To stay for the whole tournament will be more like €6,500, it says.
“It’s clearly difficult for most fans to know how expensive the World Cup is going to be for them,” says FSE’s CEO, Ronan Evain. “To book flights or a hotel you need the tickets first, so you need to pay to know how much it is going to cost. There is a consistent lack of information about the process and what there is is difficult to understand; nothing is written clearly on paper. It feels like Fifa and Qatar are doing their best to persuade people not to go.”
There is a cheap category of tickets available only to locals, and fans flying in from neighbouring countries is also a possibility, though unlikely for every fixture (and flights from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Doha to watch Belgium v Canada would still start at £500 return).
The Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, responsible for organising the tournament, remains confident of staging an event that will attract global interest. “We expect to welcome more than 1 million visitors throughout the duration of the tournament,” a spokesperson said. “The host country will deliver up to 130,000 rooms, which equates to 3.6m room nights. With six months until kick-off, Qatar is on track to ensure football fans from all over the world can book a wide range of unique and affordable accommodation options. There is no concern that demand could outstrip supply.”
What fans will do in Qatar is also to be confirmed. Expectations were of two grand fan parks that, crucially, would be licensed to sell alcohol. Those plans, according to the Supreme Committee, are continuing, with more information “in due course”.
The spokesperson said: “Fans will be able to enjoy Qatar’s world-leading museums and traditional souqs, feast on traditional street food and make the most of the beaches and desert adventures.”