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When World Cup Reality Isn’t What It Seems

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LUSAIL, Qatar — Fatih pulls the automobile over, letting the engine idle, and reaches for his phone. He hurriedly swipes away the varied ride-sharing apps he has open and scrolls through his WhatsApp chats with a practiced finger. He’s looking for a bunch called “Brazil Fans Qatar.” This, he says, will explain every little thing.

Last month, as teams began to arrive in Qatar ahead of the World Cup, several found guards of honor waiting for them at their hotels and training bases: groups of a number of dozen fans, clad in national-team jerseys, waving national flags, carrying homemade banners and beating drums.

In most circumstances, that may not be especially noteworthy. Here, though, it was not possible to not wonder.

There had long been doubts about what number of fans would attend the primary World Cup within the Middle East, due to each practical concerns — the price of spending weeks in Doha, the relative scarcity of alcohol — and ethical ones, centered on Qatar’s treatment of the migrant employees who had built the tournament, and its criminalization of homosexuality.

Qatar, it had already emerged, had recruited several hundred “fan leaders” from the world over, paying for his or her flights and accommodations in exchange for his or her enthusiastic, public support. The suspicion ran that the groups waiting to welcome the teams, apparently wholly composed of South Asian men, were one other arm of the identical program.

No, no, no, Fatih said, suddenly stopping the automobile. He’s ordinarily “an accountant and a sales executive,” he said, but throughout the tournament he has arrange — with permission — as a taxi service, too. Like most foreign employees here, he preferred not to make use of his last name out of fear of drawing unwanted attention from the country’s authorities.

After a minute or so, he finds what he wants: a video from Kerala, his home state in India. It had been shot that day but had already been forwarded repeatedly. It showed two groups of men, some carrying sticks, brawling in the middle of a village. Half of them are wearing brilliant yellow Brazil jerseys. The others are within the distinctive sky blue and white of Argentina.

“This happens every FIFA World Cup,” Fatih said. There are other fans whose loyalties lie with Portugal, or England, or Spain, he explained, but mostly it’s Brazil and Argentina. The affiliations run deep. Fatih might change his club team, he said, but Brazil was nonnegotiable.

It was fans like these, like him, who had greeted the teams in Doha: Keralans who live and work in Qatar and had been sufficiently enthused by the prospect of seeing these normally distant, distant stars within the flesh that a lot of them paid a whole bunch of dollars for tickets to games. Fatih himself was going to see Brazil play Cameroon, he said. Any cost was value it.

A Temporary Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What’s the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the most effective national soccer teams against one another for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This yr’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the US and Japan to win the appropriate to carry the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition stays in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the 2 weeks that follow, 4 games can be played on most days. The tournament ends with the ultimate on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup normally takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar may need unpleasant consequences and agreed to maneuver the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

What number of teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified mechanically because the host, and after years of matches, the opposite 31 teams earned the appropriate to return and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of 4. Within the opening stage, each team plays all the opposite teams in its group once. The highest two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup within the U.S.? The tournament can be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You’ll be able to livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how one can watch every match.

When will the games happen? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of Recent York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. Meaning there can be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the US for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

This World Cup, greater than another, has blurred the road between the organic and the ersatz, the substitute and the authentic. Those Keralan fans, it turned out, were among the many few things about which it was possible to be absolutely certain, an island of vivid reality in a sea of the synthetic.

The visual aesthetic of the World Cup is everlasting, and uniform. Whether it’s staged in Brazil or Russia or a tiny, thumb-shaped peninsula within the Gulf, its appearance is largely the identical. The stadiums are sandblasted with FIFA’s insignia. There are advertisements for Budweiser and Hisense; inspiring, empty slogans; volunteers in lurid jackets.

World Cups are, in effect, at all times held in FIFAland, a theme park and a simulacrum, the stage for a made-for-television spectacle by which the identity and traditions of the host country are — for essentially the most part — reduced to nothing greater than a gap ceremony, a number of “cultural activations” and a bit themed merchandise.

Qatar is that process taken to its logical, literal extreme. It isn’t just that a raft of recent hotels and apartment blocks has been in-built Doha, it’s that whole neighborhoods have been constructed. Lusail, town that can host the ultimate on Sunday, has been built from scratch, conjured from the sands.

For a month, the entire place has been given over to the World Cup. Qatar closed its schools, shuttered its offices and set about constructing a painstakingly curated version of reality. It has given Doha the air of a movie set, a city viewing itself through a number of Instagram filters.

Whatever your selected backdrop, it is offered. On Doha’s Corniche, skirting town’s bay, a jetty has been given over for fans to take photos of the West Bay skyline. There are 4 backdrops available to border your picture: an unlimited hourglass, sponsored by Hublot; one sign reading “I Love Qatar” and one other “Qatar 2022”; and, for the literalists, an image frame.

If that doesn’t suit, then there may be West Bay itself, its soaring glass towers, monuments to a capitalism unbound by borders, continually illuminated within the flags of the competing nations and infrequently lit by fireworks and drone shows. Or there may be trendy Msheireb, the package-fresh downtown district that has supposedly been modeled on Recent York, its coffee bars and food trucks all decked out in a globalized style that the author Kyle Chayka has labeled “AirSpace.”

The best manifestation, though, is Lusail itself, with its boulevard inspired by the Champs-Élysées and its vast promoting screens that project Neymar in a way that is often reserved for an aging tyrant or a spiritual figure. It runs from the gleaming, golden bowl of the Lusail Iconic Stadium to a large iridescent shark, suspended between 4 aluminum-clad skyscrapers, at the opposite. (The shark, obviously, proves Qatar’s love of nature.)

A few miles away is Lusail marina, home to a shopping center based around a facsimile of Place Vendôme, and to the official hotel, the closest thing on Earth to a Stargate, a crab’s claw in steel and glass, reaching into the sky as if it were attempting to tear down heaven. In between stand empty lots and construction work, a city for a future that isn’t yet ready.

Doha isn’t unique on this, after all; it isn’t the primary place to blur the boundary between authentic and inauthentic. There are countless premium urban developments within the West — Hudson Yards in Recent York, Granary Square in London — that would even be accused of being derivative, intentional, inorganic.

Its scale, though, is such that its effect is profoundly uncanny in a way that its most evident parallels, Las Vegas and Disney World’s Epcot, are usually not. Lusail is drenched, permanently, in music so loud and light-weight so brilliant it’s not possible to think. Uplifting, high-tempo pop drifts through the streets of Msheireb from hidden speakers, as if sung by ghosts. The town itself felt so very like a stage that it became hard to not search for — or find — actors.

At Qatar’s first game, a defeat to Ecuador, one end of Al Bayt Stadium — a gorgeous, gargantuan rendition of a Bedouin tent, surrounded by pristine lawns in the midst of the desert — was filled by fans wearing burgundy T-shirts, their arms snaked with tattoos, chanting and cheering and dancing for the host nation.

They were, it turned out, hired hands, Lebanese ultras recruited by Qatar to offer a bedrock of support. They were fake, in the standard sense of the word, but that isn’t how they saw themselves: Their passion for the country that had brought the World Cup to a Muslim nation, to an Arab nation, they said, was real.

Around them, at every game they attended, were great swathes of empty seats. The fears of sparse attendances, it seemed, had been realized. Except that they’d not: Like clockwork, an announcement could be made claiming that not only was the stadium full, but it surely was fuller than previously thought possible. Lusail, described for years as having room for 80,000 people, contained greater than 88,000 for its first game.

When pressed, the organizing committee said that there was a difference between official capability and operational capability. Overnight, FIFA hurriedly adjusted the scale of every stadium on its website. Where the road between the actual and the synthetic stood depended, it seemed, on where you wanted it to face.

Greater than anything, over the past 4 weeks, Doha has been a city of fences. There are fences down the center of roads. There are fences along pavements. There are miles of fences, twisting and turning outside stadiums, along the perimeters of parks, across the concrete expanses of fan zones, all of them placed to guide fans to where they’re presupposed to be.

And where the fences are usually not sufficient, there are people. There are people standing in luminescent vests at traffic lights and crosswalks, helping fans cross the road, people standing on the tram tracks in Msheireb, helping fans to note the tram, people every five yards or so in Al Bidda Park, directing fans to the metro, whether or not they need to go to the metro or not.

For 12 years, ever since Qatar won the appropriate to host this World Cup, a debate has lingered over why, exactly, it will need to accomplish that, and to accomplish that at such cost.

Was it the projection of sentimental power? Was it to distract from its human rights record, or create national identity, or to announce itself to the world, or to make sure the relevance, the safety, of an enviably wealthy country in a region dominated by Saudi Arabia and Iran? Was it a political event, as much concerning the seating arrangements within the V.V.I.P. boxes as what happened within the games?

That debate has to do with the World Cup as concept. The World Cup as an event, an actuality, though, is different. That World Cup is about people: the athletes on the sphere, whose achievements are etched in history, and the fans off it, whose presence defines the character of the tournament.

The a whole bunch of miles of fences had been erected around Doha to guide fans to the areas where the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy had decided they ought to be. Quickly, though, as a whole bunch of hundreds of Argentines and Mexicans and Tunisians and Moroccans descended on a single city, it became clear they’d go where they desired to go.

And where they desired to go was Souq Waqif, an area no larger than a few city blocks, all tight alleyways and shops laden with spices and fabric and birds and suddenly overburdened restaurants, the one place in town that was not plastered with World Cup branding and felt all of the more authentically Qatari and distinctively Arabian for it.

After some time, the authorities acquiesced to a reality forced on them. Quite than directing fans to the formal fan zones, a recent announcement rang out on Doha’s metro, informing those that wished to alight at Souq Waqif that they may walk there from Msheireb station, exit 4. People make the World Cup what they need it to be.

The souq’s principal intersection became a gathering point for roving bands of fans. For 18 hours a day, every couple of minutes, a special set, a special nation, would stop to sing its songs, to wave its flags, before slowly dispersing, the space claimed by one other group. The colours and the languages and the rhythms modified, however the noise, the spectacle, was constant.

It was there that the World Cup felt most authentic, the least synthetic, the least curated. Just like the Keralan fans, the fervor and the fun and the carnival of those that gathered there have been real, undeniable, evident. The stage on which they gathered, though, was a bit more complex.

The unique souq on the positioning burned down in 2008. It was rebuilt within the years that followed, its careworn, cramped feel rigorously, deliberately coded into the design. It’s old and recent, authentic and inauthentic, real and unreal, all at the identical time.

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