World Cup preparations in Qatar: Are the 2022 hosts ready for November?

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The World Cup in 2022 is only two months away. The tiny Gulf state of Qatar has built stadiums, opened five-lane highways and a $36 billion Metro system, and undertaken a massive construction effort on a grueling timeline to ensure that fans from all over the world can attend the four-week competition. But, with the big game only a few weeks away, how prepared is Qatar to pull it off?

ESPN visited Doha earlier this month to assess the preparations for the first Northern Hemisphere winter World Cup, as well as the first to be held in the Middle East.

Every major tournament – World Cup, Olympic Games – is held against the backdrop of concerns about stadiums not being ready, security issues, or prohibitively expensive accommodation and travel for fans, and Qatar is no exception. The reality of Qatar 2022 is that, with the first game between Qatar and Ecuador only 61 days away, there is both good and bad news as the clock counts down to the 32-team tournament.

How prepared is Qatar for the World Cup?

On September 9, the 80,000-capacity Lusail Iconic Stadium hosted a friendly between Egypt's Zamalek and Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahly, making it the final of seven new stadiums built for the World Cup (Khalifa International Stadium opened in 1976). The Lusail will host the World Cup final on December 18, and it is a spectacular stadium, similar to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (both designed by Populous stadium architects).

All seven new buildings are ready for the World Cup, and the stunning designs of Al-Bayt Stadium and Al Janoub, shaped like a pearl, will ensure that Qatar receives a perfect 10 for aesthetics and styling. However, while the vast five-line highways and Metro system are ready to connect fans between stadiums, with the longest journey taking no more than an hour from Al Janoub in the south to Al Bayt in the north, there is precious little in terms of fan amenities with only weeks until the first game.

Some stadiums are surrounded by dust bowls, which are vast areas of desert, construction sites, or empty parking lots with no hotels, shops, or cafes for miles. Between now and the World Cup, all stadiums will be outfitted with fan zones, food stalls, and fun areas, according to the organizers, but there is still plenty to do.

Accommodation will also be a source of concern. Qatar is currently a massive construction site. Some hotels and apartments will be ready on time, while others will clearly not be. A five-year project to build hotels, restaurants, shops, and apartments around the Lusail is still years, not months, away from completion.

Where will the fans go?

The Qatar Supreme Committee, which is in charge of organizing the World Cup, anticipates that 1.3 million fans will visit Qatar during the tournament, which is roughly half of the country's current population. The bad news is that there will not be enough space for all of them to stay in Qatar.

Qatar agreed earlier this year to 160 daily shuttle flights between Doha and the United Arab Emirates, allowing fans to take the 40-minute flight from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The route is typically served by only six flights per day.

The few options in Qatar range from sleeping pods ($80 per night) to the opulence of Banana Island, a 20-minute boat ride from Doha, which offers beach villas on stilts above the water for £2,500 per night. Bookings have already been taken from the families of France and England players, according to Banana Island sources. Meanwhile, the Supreme Committee and FIFA have reserved 80% of hotel rooms in Doha for teams and officials, with the remaining 20,000 rooms set to be released in the month leading up to the tournament.

Tented campsites, similar to those found at music festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury, will be available, with a deluxe tent available for $380 per night at Al Khor. However, while thousands are set to be offered cabins at the Al Wakrah Camp for $190 per night, they currently offer little in the way of luxury. At the moment, they're rows of metal cabins in the desert, and the photos speak for themselves.

The organizers insist they will be ready and appealing in time for the World Cup, but many fans will be taken aback.

What is the status of alcohol? Can or cannot fans drink?

Alcohol is available in Qatar, but it is strictly regulated and will remain so throughout the World Cup. When ESPN asked the Supreme Committee's Head of Security if fans could bring their own alcohol to Qatar, he was told emphatically "no."

Supporters with a lot of money can go to one of Doha's many luxury hotels and buy alcohol from the sports bars and pubs. A pint of beer costs between £12 and £14 at the Inter Continental Beach, Marriott Marquis, and Kempinski Pearl (the USMNT is staying at the Kempinski).

Fans will be able to purchase alcohol at stadiums before and after the game, but they will not be able to buy a beer and watch the game from the stands. Budweiser, the World Cup's title sponsor, will provide beer in stadiums and fan zones. On matchdays, the 40,000-person capacity fan zone at Al Bidda Park in central Doha will serve alcohol, but only after 6:30 p.m. until 1 a.m.

Non-Muslim residents in Qatar can obtain a permit from the Qatar Distribution Company to purchase alcohol, but there are no plans to relax restrictions on visitors purchasing alcohol outside of hotels, restaurants, and fan zones during the World Cup. Although authorities are unlikely to impose harsh penalties on fans caught with alcohol outside of designated areas, drinking in public can result in a six-month prison sentence or a $800 fine.

How easy is it to navigate Qatar and its eight stadiums?

Qatar is small – very small, roughly the size of Connecticut or half the size of Wales – so there will be no long journeys for fans, as there have been in recent World Cups in Russia and Brazil. The good news is that Qatar has constructed new roads as well as a metro system that connects all of the stadiums. A day pass to the Metro costs only 6 riyal ($1.65), and it will be free for World Cup fans who have match tickets.

Overall assessment: Will Qatar succeed?

It will be a different World Cup than previous ones, but the critical elements are now in place, with stadiums and infrastructure projects completed.

A lack of accommodations will be a problem. According to ESPN, the Qatari mentality is to leave things until the last minute, but they always deliver. According to sources, that approach has irritated some at FIFA, who expect every project to run smoothly.

There was little obvious concern in Qatar that time was running out for work to be completed, but fans may have to brace themselves for a tournament devoid of the off-field distractions found at World Cups in other parts of the world. The facilities are already world-class, and the climate should provide ideal football conditions.

The big question is whether such a small country can handle such a large influx of supporters from all over the world. That is a question that can only be answered once everything is up and running in 61 days.