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My FIFA World Cup experience in Qatar - A paradoxical juxtaposition

I’m just off the plane from my fifth FIFA World Cup. While my thoughts and emotions are fresh, I wanted to share my on-the-ground observations with you.


I’ll start by saying I believe the FIFA World Cup is the greatest sporting event on the face of planet earth. It combines the best of every other major event. The World Cup has the nationalism of the Olympics, only more patriotic. It has the largess of the Super Bowl, but bigger. It has the tournament format and bracketology of the Final Four, with more competitions. It has the pageantry of College Football, but more colorful (just attend a Brazil, Argentina or any African nation match). 


But this World Cup in Qatar was difficult to be part of. The controversy that engulfed this event was no secret. Mainly centered on the process by which Qatar was awarded this opportunity, and in the years that followed, how the event led to thousands of migrant worker deaths.


I’m a capitalist at heart, but I also have a conscience. Attending this event with my commercial-driven mindset caused my moral compass to go haywire. Those feelings didn’t improve when the largest public discourse around the World Cup after I arrived centered on Qatar’s laws and attitudes toward LGBTQ people, which is of keen importance to me given my own identity. My hope was that global football’s collective push for inclusion would overcome the host nation sentiments. As we all know, that crumbled quickly once the seven European football governing bodies folded under pressure to not allow their team captains to wear the “One Love” armband to promote diversity.


Nevertheless, this World Cup was a culminating moment for GMR and several of our clients, including Visa, YouTube and FIFA. It was hard not to be excited for that. But as a marketer and someone who revels in creating memory-making experiences for others, I vowed to go through this tournament in a culturally real way, while also appreciating the privilege that comes with being able to attend an event that maybe 0.001% of football fans ever experience in person.

The People vs The Privileged

When “the fan experience” topic comes up, I often tell my friends who work at FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, or any other Governing Body that they should put away their all-access credentials for one full day. If they truly want to understand the event from the perspective of the ‘every fan,’ act like one. I implore them to wake up without a plan, download the App, hunt for a ticket, figure out public transportation, buy concessions and merchandise, watch from “the cheap seats,” and party with the people. I try and practice what I preach, but it’s not always feasible given the responsibilities of my job. In Qatar, I gave most of it a shot.


I used the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 App to gain information and get around. I downloaded the FIFA+ App and experimented with the Stadium Experience technology, which offered AR overlays for stats and line-ups, along with options for camera angles and replays. I favored Careem, the Dubai-based ride-share app, over Uber. I took the new, free, state-of-the-art Doha Metro to and from matches. I attended Fan Fest and shopped in the FIFA Fan Store. I walked through the Souq Wakif marketplace and supported local merchants using local currency. I sought out and drank Budweisers in the very few hotel bars that were licensed to sell alcohol. I dined locally with our Qatari agency partners in dry areas of Doha. I watched the Germany/Costa Rica match on a big screen in a public viewing space in the Msheireb. 


My experiences in Qatar were exquisite. The Qataris and locals were phenomenal hosts. Everything worked beautifully. The public transport was shiny and perfect. I felt safe and secure. Every venue, facility, and establishment felt like stepping into a new suit. The weather was balmy (even if they air condition the outdoor stadiums and shopping areas without regard for the environment – but that’s a whole different article to write). From what I saw, the global melting pot of fans figured out the Middle Eastern culture and got along famously. From the conversations I had with fans, many of whom had been to multiple World Cups, everyone raved about Qatar.


I mentioned earlier how rare it is for a football fan to even attend a World Cup. In Qatar, I was among a group of sports management/marketing professionals whose feet barely touch the ground at major events like this. Check out the New York Times article “When V.I.P. Isn’t Exclusive Enough: Welcome to V.V.I.P.”. This piece says it all. The article talks about how each sports venue has its own tiered system of luxury and how the World Cup in Qatar is providing a reminder that there is always a higher level. I joked with a client about the “bigger boat” conundrum. We wondered if we should feel proud or embarrassed that we experienced 4 of the 5 tiers of hospitality described in the article. Chauffeured vehicles with direct, private access to enter stadium grounds. Golf cart rides to red carpets entering the venues. Greetings and gifts from the most polished and professional event staff, the likes I’ve never seen. The size, scale, and design of the hospitality lounges, replete with the best food (and yes, alcohol) I’ve ever had in a sports facility was unforgettable. Never before, and likely never again, will I experience sport in such opulence.

What’s Next?

While Qatar was special and horrifying in many ways, the last 12 years of global events have not been operated on moral high ground. We’ve just crested a 12-year wave where the Olympics and World Cup were hosted by nations – China, Russia, Brazil, Qatar, South Africa – that made it incredibly difficult to separate the business opportunity of sport from the spate of humanitarian issues each of those countries presented.


Nations slated to host upcoming global sporting events – USA, Canada, Mexico, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand - each have their unique imperfections that will need to be addressed. Economic inequality, political divisiveness, and systemic issues around diversity, equity and inclusion will present challenges and opportunities for brands, rightsholders, media companies, and the agencies that serve them.


As we turn the page to the balance of the 2020s, I look forward to designing experiences that are fundamentally purposeful in nature, using my platform and privilege to help solve problems and planning with the true fan experience in mind. If I can do that, my conscience will be much clearer through the next decade of World Cups and Olympic and Paralympic Games.