Doha, Qatar – Excitement was in the air as thousands of migrant workers turned out to watch the historic first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup featuring Qatar and Ecuador at the Industrial Area Fan Zone in Qatar’s capital, Doha.
Almost all the men, the bustling crowds of mainly South Asian workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, plus some from Africa, had helped build the infrastructure that made the World Cup possible.
On Sunday night, they were more than ready to enjoy the game and appreciate the fruits of their labor.
Some came in their work overalls, having come straight from work. Others had the day off and there were those who had asked employers if they could skip work to watch the game.
Despite being some 30 km (19 miles) south-west of central Doha and the official FIFA Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park, there was no less anticipation among football fans in this industrial area, which is home to many migrant workers from Qatar.
“Here I am right in the thick of it… and of course excited,” 45-year-old Bangladeshi Muhammad Hossein told Al Jazeera inside the fan zone at Doha’s Asian Town Cricket Stadium.
Hossein told how he once worked on the construction of a metro station in Doha – part of the many infrastructure projects for the World Cup – and was now employed there as a janitor.
Being part of the World Cup is 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.
Despite his home country being one of the greatest cricket-producing nations in the world, Hossein does not expect Bangladesh to repeat similar success in international football, at least not any time soon.
“My country has no chance in my lifetime… to qualify for or host the World Cup,” he said.
Qatar, which has a population of just around 2.8 million, is the first Muslim country in the Middle East to host the FIFA World Cup. Preparing the country to host the Games was a Herculean task, performed mostly by foreign workers.
“Qatar didn’t have the metro or the buses that you see on the streets. All these buildings on the corniche, the highways and roads might not exist if this gigantic event didn’t take place,” Peter, a worker from India, told Al Jazeera.
“I’m happy to say we [migrant workers] played a big role,” said the 48-year-old, who came to Qatar more than 15 years ago and works in a glass fiber manufacturer.
“Really enjoyed” the match.
Before kick-off, the atmosphere was lively as people poured into the fan zone, where the delicious aromas of biryanis prepared at food stalls filled the air.
But as soon as the referee’s whistle blew, all attention was on the giant video screen and Qatar, who were undoubtedly the crowd favourites.
Every possession or counterattack by a Qatari player drew huge applause from the thousands of spectators who watched.
Unfortunately, Qatar failed, only trailing by two goals in the first half, with the result ending 0-2 in favor of Ecuador.
Still, Pradeep, from Mumbai, India, said he “really enjoyed himself.” Of course, the evening would have ended better if the hosts had won, said the 20-year-old.
“We would have celebrated on the street,” he said.
The gates to the fan zone in this industrial area of Doha opened 20-30 minutes before the game. That Fans cheered at the opening ceremonies, from a speech by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to a performance by Korean BTS superstar Jungkook.
Many captured the opening ceremony with their camera phones, which were sent to loved ones abroad, many of whom have long lived apart as they work in Qatar.
Music was also part of the mix at the workers’ fan zone, where a DJ played many well-known Indian tracks, including the classic Panjabi MC ‘Mundian to Bach Ke’ – a beat clearly enjoyed by the crowd.
Despite their delight at living in Qatar during the World Cup, almost everyone who spoke to Al Jazeera bemoaned the fact that most could not afford tickets to the actual games as their salaries barely exceeded 2,000 Qatari riyals ($550 US dollars) per month.
Ticket prices are up to 800 Qatari Riyals (US$220) for the group matches only, while all knockout matches are not available on the main purchase or resale platform.
Peter, who works at the fiber-optic company, said he tried to find the reported 40 Qatari riyals (US$11) playing cards every few days, but gave up looking because he believed 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 fan zone game, had bought a ticket for the Netherlands v Ecuador game which cost him 600 Qatari riyals (US$165) even though he was currently earning a salary of 1,100 Qatari riyals (US$302). -dollars) took home.
“I know it’s a lot,” Arvin told Al Jazeera.
“I have to save for myself and family in India…that’s why I’m here, after all,” he said.
“But when will I get this opportunity again to see the greatest of all World Cups?”
Human rights groups and critics of the Gulf nation that hosts the World Cup have consistently raised concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and job security issues in Qatar.
These criticisms led to landmark reforms in 2020, including Qatar’s scrapping of the so-called ‘Certificate of Clearance’, which had forced workers to seek approval from their current employers before being allowed to change jobs. Qatar has also introduced a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275).
For Peter, consideration should have been given to providing tickets for the lower-paid migrants who helped build infrastructure for the World Cup.
People with high salaries also took advantage of the cheaper tickets, he said.
A ticket quota for low-income earners would have been a welcome gesture from those who made the Games possible, he said.
“I would have preferred that FIFA and the government should have kept 10 percent of tickets for low-income earners.”