ON THE giant screen set up on a platform near the practice nets of the Qatar Cricket Stadium, Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly scores a free-kick that takes his team to the last 16 of the World Cup. Under the screen, Samuel and his friends spontaneously started dancing. They are soon joined by the other Senegalese among the 1,000 or so spectators, most of them on the grassless grassy plain or scattered in the gallery and on the wooden planks.
As the celebrations fade, Samuel grabs hold of a rosary and prays for the next 20 minutes to pass without Ecuador equalizing. When the final whistle blows, Samuel draws a cross in the air and quickly calls a friend to arrange a party. “One of the happiest days of my life. I was a kid when Senegal last qualified for the pre-quarter (in 2002),’ he beams.
Welcome to Asian Town – and this special Fan Zone for Qatar’s migrant workers, one of two set up in the country and the other in Al Khor, about 70km away.
Far from the dazzling skyscrapers of central Doha, this is where the working population gathers to bury the hardships of the day and fill their lives with some joy. The disparity between the extra Fan Zones, set up for those who have flown in from all over the world, is obvious.
There are no beer stands here – to prevent fights from breaking out, a policeman says – no searches, no McDonald’s shops, no faces with welcome smiles, no female fans, and no t-shirts and shorts, just billowy kurtas and faded shirts . At halftime, 1990s Bollywood chartbusters set the mood, and a woman hosts a quiz contest where the winners receive t-shirts and other merchandise.
“I don’t have a QID (Qatar Identification Card), I can’t apply for a Hayya (City Entry Permit) and buy a ticket, because it’s going to be expensive. We’re barely making ends meet,” says Samuel, in a tone of cheer that gives way to hopelessness.
He landed in Doha with the dream of becoming a security guard. “There is a high demand for Africans in this profession,” he says. But he ended up as a painter – and is part of a 20-person team painting a 10-story building near the old airport, earning about 1,200 Qatari Riyals (about 26,000 rupees) a month. The money is “just enough to survive”, even though Samuel lives with 10 friends in a two-room apartment on the outskirts of Asian Town.
Behind this Fan Zone is a mid-sized shopping mall and a few semi-neglected theaters that mainly show Malayalam, Hindi and Bengali films. There are packed tea stalls with “kadak chai” for one riyal and “samosa-kachori” for two riyals. Deep in Asian Town, they claim you can even get cheap alcohol in black or homemade country liquor, which was “huge demand during the lockdown”. “It’s a different world than Doha,” says Samuel.
But yes, not all the people who gather here are football diehards. Many come to spend an evening with friends, to savor the moment, to get a second-hand experience of what the world that has descended on Qatar is experiencing. Says Riyas from Peshawar, who works on a construction site for a monthly salary of 1,100 riyals, just above the minimum wage of 1,000 riyals. “I don’t understand football. I don’t have time to watch any sport, not even cricket. But I stay near the Fan Zone so I thought I’ll just have a look. It has a sort of festival feel to it , mela jaisa (like a carnival),’ he says.
Now he is waiting for Pakistan to qualify. “When I heard about the World Cup, I thought Pakistan would be there. Then a friend told me you have to qualify. One day, God willing, we will qualify too,” he says. The excitement around him reminds him of the cricket he played at home under streetlights. “I haven’t been home for three years. They are happy that I am here, because I send money,” he says.
Everyone tells the same story – of debt and wars, of unemployment and hopelessness at home.
Baba Ali, a carpenter from Nepal, has been in Qatar for 30 years and says he has seen the city built from “just sand and dust”. He says several of his friends and relatives have worked on stadium grounds. And that’s why he comes here every day, although those who helped build the stadiums and infrastructure are far from rolling out the revelry across the country. So close and yet so far away.
“Yeh hamara bhi stadium hain, yeh hamara bhi world cup hain (This is also our stadium, this is also our World Cup),” says Ali.
When exiting this Fan Zone, at the gate, there is a FIFA message printed in Hindi. It reads: “Thank you for your contributions in delivering the best World Cup ever.”