DOHA, Qatar — After Sheng Xie, a 33-year-old soccer fan from Vancouver, booked his flight to the World Cup, he started looking for a place to stay.
Through the official tournament website, he quickly settled on a relatively affordable place called the Fan Village. The room pictured looked functional and clean. There were twin beds, wifi, air conditioning and a fridge, all for about $200 a night.
Little did he know it was essentially in a shipping container.
“What have I booked?” Xie wondered in recent weeks as he began seeing photos of his under-construction housing on social media.
What he found upon his arrival was a sea of brightly colored metal crates, lined up side by side in neat rows, labeled and numbered, stretching as far as he could see. His container/trailer was one of thousands hastily placed in a field near the airport. Workers said there were 4,000 of them. A map at the entrance showed plans for more than 7,500, plus an area reserved for employees. It was like a one-story Lego city.
And down the well-lit acres of artificial turf that lie on the pebble floor, past the huge tent that doubles as the dining room and the big box that houses a grocery store and all the little boxes that hold groceries or coffee or medicine or Fans sell equipment, and not far from the outdoor gym and football field-sized rooms where people can gather to watch football games on a big screen, Xie found his room in section E8 behind a metal door.
A short guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? At the event, which takes place every four years, the best national football teams compete against each other for the world championship title. Here is an introduction to the 2022 men’s tournament:
Inside looked exactly like the picture. The air conditioning kept it cool enough and the wifi worked. There were two small windows to let in some light. He was relieved to know the doors were locked.
Tuesday night was his fifth night. Would he book it again?
Xie considered. He’d just hinted that his chosen shelters might make a worthy template for housing the homeless in places like the United States and Canada, hardly a strong endorsement for a vacation environment.
“I would probably say yes,” he said.
Qatar only has a population of around 3 million and fans from all over the world who flock to Doha’s World Cup stadiums for four games a day need somewhere to stay. Most hotels found, and Doha offers a variety of offbeat brands. Others booked seats on one of the few docked cruise ships brought in for the occasion.
For many fans – especially the more adventurous or thrifty among them – the place they’ve found is in a field that most of the time feels like nowhere.
After all, Qatar knows how to build vast amounts of functional housing for temporary residents. The dusty outskirts of Doha are filled with sprawling neighborhoods not dissimilar to these, with names like Asian Town and Industrial Area, which are permanent camps for the migrant workers who do most of Qatar’s construction and service jobs. The World Cup organizers seem to have used the concept as a solution for the fans.
Not all options were as boxy as a properly outfitted shipping container. At a more upmarket fan village called Al Khor, 40 minutes’ drive north of central Doha near the beach, the concept is ‘Arabian camping’.
Visitors stay in canvas tents decorated with furniture, sanitary facilities, televisions and a refrigerator. There’s a swimming pool, restaurant, collection of pop-up shops, and a “fun zone” with a large fire pit and big-screen TVs. Advertised rates this week were over $400 per night.
At the lower end of the spectrum is Caravan City, a collection of 1,000 boxy white trailers on wheels. Prices there start at around $115 per night.
The far more common choice, however, were containers, which the organizers cleverly renamed “cabins”. They’re essentially pop-up trailer parks, football-themed campgrounds, and there are three of them around Doha.
The free zone where Xie stayed has a subdued atmosphere, amid low-flying aircraft flying in and out of the nearby airport, in no small part due to the lack of alcohol on the premises. (Hotels are among the few places in Qatar that allow the sale of alcohol.) There’s a main street of sorts, a yellow-turf street that serves as a catwalk for a motley crew of football fans.
On the horizon, the yellow turf ends in a construction zone where heavy machinery arranged even more containers after the tournament started. In the darkness of Tuesday night, brigades of workers connected water and electricity, put furniture away and cleaned the accommodation units for arriving guests.
When Xie arrived on Friday, he was one of the first to check in. On Tuesday, the village was crowded and disorganized. Waiting for check in took hours. Electric carts brought in to take people to their far-flung rooms – Xie said he tipped the man who took him to a temporary home a few days earlier – were parked with dead batteries.
Gihana Fava and Renan Almeida, who will be engaged next year, have arrived from Brazil. Like Xie, they booked the village without knowing exactly what to expect, but the price was right. Hotels in the city center are either fully booked or well over their budget, Almeida said.
After a long flight (and one missed flight), they spent almost three hours in a check-in queue on Tuesday. Fava and Almeida finally got a key, entered a room and found that it was already occupied.
A new room – literally – has been found. However, it was on the fringes of development, far out at S4, far from anything. There were twin beds not the queen they booked. Everything was covered with a recognizable layer of dust. The cleaners hadn’t reached their unit yet.
Fava expressed concern that someone else could get a wrong key and get into her unit in the middle of the night. Were they safe to leave their things here when they went to the games?
Someone knocked on the door. Fava and Almeida were sure it was another guest who had been sent in error. But it was a worker who made sure the fridge worked. It seemed to work.
The two tried the shower. It sprayed a powerful stream of hot water. they smiled.
“I told Gihana that we should lower our expectations and expect the worst,” Almeida said. “Because it’s not a hotel.”