Why the World Cup in Qatar Brings Fans Joy and Anxiety

Kieran Jones, an avid soccer fan who lives in Cardiff, Wales, can tell you all the details about the last time his beloved Welsh national team made it to the World Cup. It was 1958, nearly a decade before he was born. A young and then little-known Brazilian named Pelé scored the goal that knocked Wales from the tournament.

“I’ve seen footage of that Pelé goal many times,” said Jones, 57, with wryness in his voice. “Actually, too many times.”

As we spoke over the phone, Jones was preparing for a six-hour flight to Qatar, the tiny Arab country that on Sunday became the first nation in the Middle East to host the World Cup. Jones plans to stay in Qatar so long as his side remains in the 29-day tournament, which for Wales starts Monday, when it plays the United States.

“It’s time to make new memories,” he said.

With his team finally back in the thick of the quadrennial celebration of the world’s game, one might think Jones would be feeling pure, unfiltered joy.

But he has plenty of worries. Jones is a volunteer ambassador for F.S.A. Cymru, Wales’s biggest soccer fan group. Part of his job in Qatar: help Welsh supporters who run into trouble in a nation with a dubious human rights record and strict, conservative laws.

“The feeling is trepidation,” he said.

His group regularly attends the biggest soccer tournaments in Europe, where he typically helps fans with lost passports and other mundane matters.

Paul Corkrey, left, and Kieran Jones are working for fan group F.S.A. Cymru in Doha. Part of their mission is to provide support to fans who might run into trouble in a country with strict laws.Credit…Courtesy Keiran Jones

In Qatar, well, let’s just say the experience could be more fraught.

In its guidebook and on social media channels aimed at World Cup ticket holders from Wales, Jones’s group does not mince words.

Do not bring alcohol to Qatar.

Do not bring drugs. Even for small amounts, the penalties are severe.

Do not offend. Do not swear.

No displays of public affection. Rude gestures are considered obscene, and offenders can be jailed. Take particular care when dealing with the police and other officials.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences for fans and players and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top 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 in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is five hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

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

“We’ve said to the female fans, ‘Don’t walk around on your own,’” Jones told me. “‘Walk around in groups.’” Also, no shorts or short-sleeve shirts around religious sites.

Qatar presents such danger and uncertainty for anyone who is gay or transgender that a thriving organization of L.G.B.T.Q. soccer fans, Wales’s Rainbow Wall, decided not to attend, Jones said.

His supporter group will send 3,000 fans to Qatar. He estimated that another 6,000 Wales devotees would make it to the games. How many would go if the World Cup were in a less troubled country? Three times more, he said. “At the least.”

There has never been a World Cup like this. Rooted in the heart of the Middle East and the Arab world for the first time, millions of fans in Qatar and watching from home will encounter a culture often misunderstood and demonized by the West. In one way, it is an opening of doors that feels beautiful, necessary and overdue.

And yet … and yet, along with the allure of possibilities for better understanding, the Cup once again thrusts the world of sport back into a vexing abyss.

The hosting of global sporting events by dictators and authoritarians has become all too familiar, forcing fans into a sort of devil’s bargain: loving sports while continuously navigating the minefield known as “sportswashing” — an attempt to use grand celebrations of athletics as a shield.

At the Strünkede Castle stadium in Germany, 20,000 candles were lit during the opening game of the World Cup to commemorate the deaths of thousands of workers in Qatar.Credit…Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters

When it comes to the ugly part of that bargain, there is much to consider.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, claims that it works to foster a welcoming environment for all. But in Qatar, men control women’s rights, freedom of expression is limited and homosexuality is a crime. Recently, a Qatari World Cup ambassador said the nation’s draconian L.G.B.T.Q. laws must be respected and that homosexuality was “damage in the mind.”

Then there’s the human misery caused by Qatar as it built $300 billion worth of stadiums and other infrastructure for the World Cup virtually from scratch. Journalists and human rights observers from outside Qatar say hundreds, if not thousands, of workers died during the construction, though the Qataris offer a far lower toll.

“Unfortunately, of the millions of residents from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal who have lived in Qatar from 2011 to 2019, a very small percentage have sadly passed away,” reads a response by the government to a report of thousands of worker deaths.

As it developed for the World Cup, Qatar leaned on the “kafala” system, in which immigrant laborers are not allowed to return home or even switch jobs without permission from their bosses. The United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other like-minded groups have condemned the practice.

Plenty of the players will make their unhappiness known. Several European teams plan to send their captains to the field with heart-shaped, multicolored, “One Love” armbands to signal support for inclusivity. The United States national team will festoon its off-field events and headquarters with the rainbow logo.

Denmark recently unveiled black jerseys meant to protest for human rights and mourn the migrant laborers who died constructing sites for the tournament.

All of this leaves many fans who love soccer for its on-field displays of glorious, gob-smacking athleticism watching with dismay.

“Let me tell you, it’s not easy,” said Eboni Christmas, a Raleigh, N.C., member of the American Outlaws, an umbrella group of soccer supporters with chapters coast to coast.

Regarding human rights in Qatar, Christmas was unsparing. “There isn’t one thing that really stands out that’s terrible,” she said. “It’s everything. It’s all bad.”

Still, as a Black gay woman, she is particularly concerned about L.G.B.T.Q. fans who travel to the Middle Eastern nation for the 29-day competition.

Christmas plans to attend the Women’s World Cup next summer in Australia and New Zealand. But she never thought of traveling to Qatar.

Eboni Christmas at The Bridge bar in Raleigh, N.C., where members of the American Outlaws will watch the U.S. men’s team.Credit…Damola Akintunde for The New York Times

“I won’t validate how they treat people like me by giving them my money,” she said, noting that she held the same stance when the Cup was held in Russia, a nation with similarly noxious laws.

“Russia was already a very hard one for L.G.B.T.Q. soccer fans, so this is just kind of like a continuous train,” she said. “We’re still getting run over.”

So, she will approach this World Cup competition the way many of us will: wary and with muted fervor. Her enthusiasm for her favorite squad will stay the same. She will watch every U.S. national team game from a reserved booth at The Bridge, a brick-walled bar in Raleigh that serves as a stomping ground for soccer fans.

She plans to pay little attention to the rest of the tournament. Silent protest, but protest nonetheless.

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