Doha, Qatar – There was excitement as thousands of migrant workers showed up for the historic first game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup with Qatar and Ecuador in the Industrial Area Fan Zone in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Nearly all the men, the bustling crowd of mostly South Asian workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, as well as some from Africa, had helped build the infrastructure that would allow the World Cup to take place.
On Sunday night, they were more than ready to enjoy the game and appreciate the fruits of their labor.
Some arrived in their work overalls after coming straight from work. Others had the day off, and some had asked employers if they could skip work to watch the game.
Although it is located about 30km (19 miles) southwest of downtown Doha and the official FIFA Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park, there was no less anticipation among football fans in this industrial area that is home to much of Qatar’s migrant workforce.
“Here, I’m in the thick of it… and of course excited,” 45-year-old Muhammad Hossein of Bangladesh told Al Jazeera in the fan zone at Asian Town Cricket Stadium in Doha.
Hossein told how he had once worked on the construction of a metro station in Doha – part of the many infrastructure projects for the World Cup – and that he now worked there as a janitor.
Participating in the World Cup was a “big deal” personally and also, he said, because it was the first time a Muslim country had hosted the tournament.
He never thought he would be “a part of something so important in this country,” he said.
Although his home country is one of the world’s great cricketing nations, Hossein said he doesn’t expect Bangladesh to repeat similar success in international football, at least not anytime soon.
“My country has no chance in my lifetime to qualify for or host the World Cup,” he said.
Qatar, with a population of just 2.5 million people, has become the first Middle Eastern and Muslim country to host the FIFA world cup. Getting the country ready to host the games was a mammoth task—carried out largely by foreign workers.
“Qatar didn’t have a metro or buses that you see on the road. All these buildings on the Corniche, the highways and roads might not exist if this massive event didn’t happen,” Peter, a worker from India, told Al Jazeera.
“I’m happy to say that we [migrant workers] played a major role,” says the 48-year-old, who came to Qatar more than 15 years ago and works in a fiber optic company.
Really enjoyed the match
Before kick-off, the atmosphere was buzzing as people poured into the fan zone, where the delicious aromas of biryanis cooked at food stalls filled the air.
But when the referee’s whistle blew, all attention was focused on the giant video screen and Qatar, who was undoubtedly the crowd favorite.
Every possession or counter-attack by a player from Qatar brought huge applause from the thousands of watching fans.
Unfortunately, Qatar fell short and trailed just two goals in the first half, with the score ending 2-0 in Ecuador’s favour.
Nevertheless, Pradeep from Mumbai, India, said he “really enjoyed it”.
The night would of course have ended better with a victory for the hosts, said the 20-year-old.
“We would party in the street,” he said.
Gates to the fan zone in this industrial area of Doha didn’t open until 20 to 30 minutes before the match between Qatar and Ecuador started, leading to crowds, congestion and a bit of pushing at the gates.
It also meant that those in attendance had to watch the lavish World Cup opening ceremony on a giant video screen in the cricket stadium car park.
But fans still cheered at the opening festivities, from Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s speech to the performance of Korean BTS superstar Jungkook.
Many captured the opening ceremony on their camera phones, which would be sent to loved ones abroad, many of whom have long been separated while working in Qatar.
Music was also part of the mix in the workers’ fan zone, where a DJ played many famous Indian songs, including Panjabi MC’s classic ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’ – a beat that the crowd visibly enjoyed.
Despite their joy at living in Qatar during the World Cup, almost all those who spoke to Al Jazeera lamented the fact that most could not afford tickets to the actual matches as their salaries barely exceeded 2,000 Qatari riyals ($550) per month amounted.
Ticket prices are as high as 800 Qatari Riyals ($220) for the group games only, while all knockout games are not available on the main buy or resell platform.
Peter, who works in the fiber optic company, said he had tried to find the reported 40 Qatari riyals ($11) match tickets every few days, but had given up the hunt, believing it was a waste of time.
“Who sells the cheap ones [tickets] now,” he asked.
Arvin Kumar, a work colleague who accompanied Peter to the game in the fan zone, had bought a ticket for the Netherlands vs Ecuador game, which cost him 600 Qatari riyals ($165) despite having just received a salary of 1,100 Qatari riyals ($302). ) took home.
“I know it’s a lot,” Arvin told Al Jazeera.
“I have to save for myself and the family in India… that’s what I’m here for after all,” he said.
“But when will I get another chance to watch the greatest of all World Cups?”
Concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and safety issues for workers in Qatar have consistently been raised by human rights groups and critics of the Gulf state that hosts the FIFA World Cup.
That criticism led to major reforms in 2020, including Qatar’s abolition of the so-called declaration of no objection, which required workers to seek permission from their current employers before being allowed to change jobs. Qatar has also introduced a minimum monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275).
For Peter, putting aside tickets for the lower-paid migrants who helped build the infrastructure for the World Cup should have been considered.
People with high salaries had also taken advantage of the cheaper tickets, he said.
A quota of tickets for the low paid would have been a gesture welcomed by those who made the games possible, he said.
“I would have preferred FIFA and the government to withhold 10 percent of tickets from low-income workers.”