Doha, Qatar Excitement filled the air as thousands of migrant workers came to watch the historic opening match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador at the Industrial Area fan zone in Doha, Qatar.
Nearly all male, noisy crowds of workers, mostly from South Asia from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and some from Africa, helped build the infrastructure that made it possible to host the World Cup.
Concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and safety concerns for workers in Qatar have been constantly raised by human rights groups and critics of the Gulf country hosting the World Cup.
That criticism led to reforms in 2020, including Qatar’s removal of the so-called no-objection certificate, which forced workers to seek consent from their current employers before they were allowed to change jobs. Qatar has also introduced a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275).
On Sunday evening they were more than ready to enjoy the game and appreciate the fruits of their labor.
Some arrived in work overalls straight from work. Others had the day off and there were those who asked employers if they could skip work to watch the match.
Despite being located about 30 km (19 miles) southwest of downtown Doha and the official FIFA Fan Fest at Al Bidda Park, football fans in this industrial area, where most of Qatar’s migrant workers live, have been nothing less than a sense of anticipation.
“I’m in the middle of the action … and naturally excited,” Muhammad Hossain, 45, from Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera in the fan zone at the Asia City cricket stadium in Doha.
Hossain described how he once worked on the construction of a metro station in Doha – part of many infrastructure projects for the World Cup – and that he now works there as a cleaner.
Participation in the World Cup was a “big event” for him personally, and also, according to him, because a Muslim country hosted the tournament for the first time.
He never thought he would be “part of something so important in this country,” he said.
Hossain says that although his home country is one of the best cricketing countries in the world, he doesn’t expect Bangladesh to repeat that success in international football, at least not any time soon.
“My country has no chance in my life… to qualify for the World Cup or host it,” he said.
Qatar, with a population of only about 2.8 million, has become the first Middle Eastern and Muslim country to adopt Soccer World Cup. Preparing the country for the games was a huge task, mostly done by foreign workers.
“Qatar didn’t have the metro or buses that you see on the roads. All these Corniche buildings, highways and roads might not have existed if this huge event had not happened,” Peter, a worker from India, told Al Jazeera.
“I am happy to announce that we [migrant workers] played a big role,” said a 48-year-old man who came to Qatar more than 15 years ago and works for an optical fiber company.
“Enjoyed” the match
Before the start of the match, the atmosphere was lively, people poured into the fan zone, where the delicious aromas of biryani prepared in food stalls filled the air.
But as soon as the referee’s whistle sounded, all attention was focused on the huge video screen and Qatar, who was undoubtedly the favorite of the public.
Every possession or counter-attack by a Qatari player was greeted with thunderous applause from thousands of fans.
Unfortunately, Qatar failed and were only two goals behind in the first half, and the score ended 2-0 in favor of Ecuador.
However, Pradeep from Mumbai, India, said he was “properly entertained”. Of course, the night would have been better ended with the victory of the hosts, the 20-year-old football player believes.
“We would celebrate in the streets,” he said.
The gates to the fan zone in this industrial area of Doha opened 20-30 minutes before kick-off. From the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s performance to that of Korean BTS superstar Jungkook, fans cheered the opening celebration.
Many filmed the opening ceremony on their camera phones, which will be sent to loved ones abroad and from which many have long lived apart while working in Qatar.
The music was also part of the mix in the workers’ fan zone, where the DJ played a host of well-known Indian tracks, including the classic Panjabi MC “Mundian to Bach Ke”, a beat that the crowd clearly liked.
Despite the joy of living in Qatar during the World Cup, almost everyone who spoke to Al Jazeera lamented that most of them could not afford tickets to the real games, as their salary barely exceeded Qatari 2,000. rials ($550) per month.
Ticket prices started at 40 QAR ($11) and went up to 800 QAR ($220) for group matches – when voting was opened earlier this year – while all knockout games are not available on the main buying platform or resale.
Peter, who works for a fiber optic company, said he tried every few days to find tickets for 40 riyals ($11) but gave up.
“Who will sell cheap [tickets] now,” he asked.
Arvin Kumar, a work colleague who accompanied Peter to the fan zone game, bought a ticket for the Netherlands vs Ecuador game which cost him 600 QAR ($165) despite having just taken home a salary of 1100 Qatari rials (302 US dollars).
“I know it’s a lot,” Arvin told Al Jazeera.
“I have to save for myself and my family in India… that’s why I’m here after all,” he said.
“But when will I get the opportunity to watch the biggest of all world championships again?”
Peter should have thought about reserving tickets for low-paid migrants who helped build the infrastructure for the World Cup.
People with higher salaries also took advantage of the cheaper tickets, he said.
The ticket quota for the underpaid would have been approved by those who made the games possible, he said.
“It is desirable that FIFA and the government leave 10 percent of tickets for the poor.”