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Soccer. World Cup 2022: ball-free excursion far from Doha – Football

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The day ends on the back of a dromedary in a sports center specially designed for this desert animal with emaciated legs. On the track of Al-Shahaniya, the comings and goings of these innumerable camelids cause the sand to rise to give the sky a lunar greyish color and the atmosphere of the place a mystical character.

Salim comes from Oman. The young man of barely 25 years old has his own box among the hundreds and hundreds following one another as far as the eye can see. Salim employs Sudanese, responsible for maintaining his 30 animals. “Here, we only have those that are used to reproduce,” he explains. The best, purebred, are a little further away, and can cost up to a million euros”.

Rachid is Sudanese and works for camel owners. (Photo Pierre-Yves Henry)

Camel races more popular than football

In Qatar, camel races are a tradition, a religion, much more than football. Until 2004, they were ridden by miners who often came from Asia. But the practice became illegal in the early 21st century, deemed too dangerous and plagued by child trafficking. Since then, the dromedaries have been advancing with whips given by robots positioned on the saddle, remotely controlled by “robot-jockeys” seated at the wheel of their SUV, on the track next door. “Come back tomorrow, there’s a race,” offers Salim. The schedule is too busy.

“Then you have to ride one, to try.” The experience is attempted, without any assurance or serenity. Night is falling. The dromedaries join the enclosures and it is now time to leave. 40 kilometers from the capital, the World Cup is only a mirage, at best a meager attraction. In Al-Shahaniya, the observation is the same as that which had been made earlier, in the north then in the west of the country: the World Cup in Qatar is that of a city, Doha.

Leaving Doha, the landscapes are often desert in Qatar.
Leaving Doha, the landscapes are often desert in Qatar. (The Telegram/Pierre-Yves Henry)

“We stay two years and we go back”

The excursion off the beaten track started early in the morning, heading for Al Khor, 50 miles from the capital, where the tent-shaped Al Bayt stadium was built which hosted the opening match. The flags of the 32 selections float on the lampposts, the only witnesses, here, of the World Cup. In this fishing town, Sanjay and Anas take a break in the shade on the port.

The two Bangladeshis receive a fixed share of 1,500 ryals (just under 400 euros) plus bonuses calculated on the weight of the catch, to bring back “big fish that you don’t have at home”. Sanjay wears an FC Barcelona shirt but doesn’t know much about the Catalan club or where to locate it on a map.

“A soccer club? Ok. We stay here for two years and we return to the country to find the family,” he says. Not far from there, Kishor presents himself as an “Indian Christian from Madras, in the south”. Captain, he explains sleeping with his crew on the boat with which he goes to sea for periods of three days before selling his catch on the market. He receives 1,000 euros per month, a fortune compared to the salaries of his country. Kishor is still not a football fan, “me, it’s kabaddi, a kind of struggle”, proclaims the fifty-something, “happy to have a visit”.

Kishor (left) and his crew.
Kishor (left) and his crew. (The Telegram/Pierre-Yves Henry)

Dukhan, oil city

By car, the disconcerting scenery offered by this desert state of 11,500 square kilometers, as large as the Ile de France, is linear. Where there was absolutely nothing a few years ago, constructions of buildings and housing estates are piling up, surrounded by huge concrete palisades.

A stop is made at Al Ruwais, at the northern end of the country. The place reminds a little bit of Brittany, its iodized air and its turquoise sea. The comparison ends there with a soulless city whose restaurant offer is almost limited to an American pizzeria chain called “Papa John’s”. It is still rare to find a reference to the World Cup, an hour and a half drive from Doha. Move along, nothing to see !

Al Ruwais is located at the northern tip of Qatar.
Al Ruwais is located at the northern tip of Qatar. (The Telegram/Pierre-Yves Henry)

In the east of the country, Dukhan the mysterious is finally announced. The indications are simple: turn left, drive straight for 120 kilometers (there is no other way out), take advantage of the arid landscape and the gusts sold by France in the sky, then arrive in the “supervised” city of refineries where photos and videos are prohibited. It was in 1939 that the main oil field of Qatar was discovered there, a country whose immense wealth comes 70% from oil and natural gas.

“Qatar Energy” has made Dukhan its stronghold, built a huge village in the city in which it is impossible to enter, except to know an employee. Crossed on a beach where it is “forbidden to throw your lighter in the sea”, Jasper is one of them. “The contracts are for one year, the apartment and the wifi free, and it’s quieter than in Doha”, sums up this Filipino. He too is not interested in the World Cup, a single-city competition in Qatar.

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