Taking selfies from the stands and sitting on the grassy pitch, thousands of migrant workers gathered in a Doha stadium to watch the opening match of the first World Cup in West Asia.
The special fan zone set up at the industrial area on the city’s outskirts included a stadium with a giant TV screen, and another big screen set up outside for an overflow crowd. It sat adjacent to several worker camps where many of Qatar’s hundreds of thousands of low-income labourers live.
“We are here to enjoy our sweat now,” said Ronald Ssenyondo, a 25-year old Ugandan who was rooting for Qatar on November 20. He had been in Qatar for two years, working long hours under the sun to finish stadiums where the tournament was being held. “I am just overwhelmed with the things I’m seeing now,” he said.
The wealthy gas-producing country is home to 2.9 million people, the vast majority of whom are foreign workers ranging from low-income construction workers to high-powered executives.
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Rights groups have accused authorities of failing to protect lower-income workers - including those who built the stadiums and hotels to host World Cup fans - from overwork, unpaid wages, and poor living conditions. The government says it has enacted labour reforms, including a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari rials, or about $275, more than many can earn back home.
Match tickets for the opener cost an average of $200 - but the industrial fan zone was free. Thousands piled in to cheer on Qatar on November 20, groaning when the match ended with Ecuador’s win 2-0.
Some said it was the closest they would get to a game all month. “I’m supporting my sisters and brothers in Ethiopia by sending money back, so I’m coming here because tickets are too much,” said Ali Jammal, 26, who has worked in Qatar for five years.
A nurse from Nepal—one of a handful of women watching—said she wouldn’t be able to watch any other matches because of her long shifts at a hospital.
Mohammad Ansar, a 28-year-old Indian who has been working in Qatar since earlier this year, said he was volunteering with FIFA at two of the upcoming matches, so would get in to watch them live. But on November 20, he was grateful to be with fellow workers watching on a screen - even though Qatar’s loss was a disappointment. “With this stadium for free, they’re considering poor people also,” he said.
Watching from the sidelines in blockaded Gaza
Meanwhile, hundreds of fans gathered at a sports hall in Gaza City on November 20, which Qatar prepared for the Palestinian residents of the impoverished territory to watch the World Cup matches for free. The fans looked attentively at the large screen as the opener game between Qatar and Ecuador kicked off.
The event was a gesture by the Qatar Committee for Reconstruction of Gaza, an arm of the wealthy Arabian Peninsula state’s foreign affairs ministry. Through the committee, Qatar has funnelled over $1 billion since 2013 for major rehabilitation projects, including residential complexes, hospitals, and roads, as well as for post-war reconstruction.
“Like other countries, one had an ambition to go to Qatar, see the stadiums and players on the ground, but the conditions in Gaza doesn’t permit,” said Emran al-Shawa, a Gaza resident.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza when the militant Hamas group seized the territory in 2007. The blockade and wars with Israel have worsened living conditions in Gaza. Travel outside the densely populated territory is severely restricted.
“We could not go to Qatar and watch the World Cup because of the siege first, the economic condition second. Many things prevent us from going there to attend the matches, but the main factor that blocked us from going there is the (Israeli) occupation and its siege,” said another fan, Anas Snounou.
(with agency inputs from Reuters and AP)