Reporters and broadcasters who cover a World Cup often don’t get a chance to unpack their luggage. The assignment is one that typically sends them hurtling from one airport to another, exploring the vast expanse of a host nation, rarely dwelling in one place for long. Barney Ronay, the chief sports writer for The Guardian, took 17 flights over the course of 30 days while covering the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. John Strong, the lead play-by-play soccer announcer for Fox Sports, likes to joke that he earned “silver status on Siberian airways” four years ago when the competition was held in Russia. “We were constantly on the move,” said Strong, who will be part of the team covering the United States’ opening match on Monday against Wales. “We would call a game, drive to the airport, and be on a 1 a.m. departure, and then connect through Moscow to go to the next city.”
This year’s World Cup in Qatar, which kicked off Sunday, will pose no such travel burdens. Visiting media personnel will take only two flights––one for arrival and one for departure. The eight stadiums hosting matches are all within a 35-mile radius of Doha, situated in and around the capital city. “The biggest change is how we’ll be living and existing,” said Jon Champion, who will provide play-by-play commentary for the British broadcaster ITV. This will be the first World Cup held in winter, a move to avoid Qatar’s stifling summer heat, and Champion says it will also be the first where he won’t be living out of his suitcase. “I’ll be able to set up camp in a hotel room in the middle of Doha, and I will return there every night regardless of where I’ll be calling my game,” said Champion, who’s covered every men’s World Cup since Italia ’90. “The longest journey I’ll face is 40 minutes.”
Those logistical anomalies offer some practical advantages––a less hectic itinerary will free up more time to take in the action on the field––but that might be the only easy part about covering the 2022 World Cup, where the assembled journalists in Qatar are finding it nearly impossible to treat it like another sporting event. This year’s edition of the tournament will test those in sports media who have strained to avoid politics in an era when sports are increasingly and explicitly political.
“We, as an outlet, have a responsibility to cover the tournament, top to bottom, and that’s not just the soccer side of it,” said Paul Tenorio, the national soccer reporter for The Athletic, who is covering his first World Cup in Qatar.
The decision to hold the tournament in the tiny Gulf state has been shrouded by allegations of bribery, and the staging of the event has come to be regarded as a human rights tragedy. Qatar’s treatment of its migrant workers, who built the stadiums and transportation infrastructure that will be used for the World Cup, has drawn international condemnation. A report published last year by The Guardian found that 6,500 of those workers had died since the country was selected in 2010 to host the tournament.
There are also concerns over how the host nation will treat its visitors. Homosexuality is outlawed in Qatar, although, according to The Guardian, law enforcement has reportedly agreed to show restraint when confronted with public displays of affection from those in the LGBTQ community. Members of the press may not be afforded such leniency. Organizers have imposed restrictions on where and what media outlets can document, prohibiting filming or photography of residential properties, private businesses, and government facilities. The government’s hardline posture has already led to incidents. Last week Qatari security officials interrupted a Danish television crew’s live shot on the streets of Doha and threatened to break their camera equipment; organizers for the World Cup later apologized and said it was a mistake.
“There’s a genuine hostility between media, fans, and host nation that I’ve never known before,” said Ronay, who is covering his third men’s World Cup this year. “It’s not supposed to be like this.” Ronay is concerned that there could be more incidents between journalists and the Qatari authorities, but he also believes the fraught atmosphere makes it impossible for the media to cover the event strictly through the prism of sport. “There is only one story,” Ronay said, “and the story is: ‘What the hell are we all doing here?’”
Smaller in total area than Connecticut and with fewer people than Kansas, Qatar is easily dwarfed by the 17 countries to previously host the World Cup. “It’s just crazy when you look at the history of where this tournament has been played––Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Mexico––all these really prominent football nations,” said Sam Wallace, the chief football writer for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. “Then there’s Qatar. It just stands out.”
Wallace was in Zurich that night in 2010 when FIFA stunned the sporting world with its selection of Qatar, making it the first country in the Middle East to host the tournament. Qatar spent the next 12 years building around $220 billion worth of new infrastructure, including stadiums for the tournament and an underground metro. “Everything is new,” said The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal, who is staying in an apartment with Tenorio outside of Doha. The ground floor of the apartment building features a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Krispy Kreme, both of which just opened. “It feels sort of like a country that’s being unboxed for a World Cup,” Stejskal said.
The new infrastructure was built by Qatar’s population of migrant workers, most of whom come from South Asia. There are nearly 3 million people in the country, but only 300,000 of those are Qatari citizens. The rest are expatriates hailing from the likes of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal. Wallace arrived in Doha earlier this month, well before most of his colleagues. He spent those first few days exploring the city on one of the many available e-scooters. On one of his first nights, Wallace came upon a large gathering of Argentina fans, nearly all of whom were Indian expats. As he continued on, Wallace saw another group of Indian expats, but this time they wore the colors of Brazil. “I think I’ve met one Qatari national,” Wallace said. “Most of the people you bump into are migrant workers.”