'I'm glad light is being shone on human rights': USA fans on the Qatar World Cup




 

The myriad controversies that have come to dwarf the Qatar World Cup have not kept American fans from turning out in droves, filling bustling public spaces like the Doha corniche and the Souq Wahif clad in USA shirts and stars-and-stripes-patterned regalia.

While Fifa has not specified how many tickets it sold directly to US supporters, it has confirmed the United States ranked third in tickets sold by country of residence behind Qatar and Saudi Arabia and ahead of Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.

Even as a number of American fans on the ground have expressed concern over the host country's human rights abuses with respect to migrant laborers, women and the LGBTQ community, the environmental costs of hosting the tournament in the region as well as the persistent allegations of bribery between the Qatar bid committee and Fifa executives, the allure of the World Cup remains as strong as ever with a robust US travelling contingent that belies the sport's modest popularity back home.

Denise Kiernan, an author from Asheville, North Carolina, said that she was grateful for the World Cup's ability to call attention to Qatar's dismal human rights record, but hopes the global media will keep its focus on the issues here once the tournament is over.

"I am always bothered by human rights violations wherever they occur," Kiernan said. "It did not prevent me from coming to this tournament. I am glad a light is being shone on them. What I am very curious to see is whether or not people who have been following the stories of the treatment of migrant workers, for example - whether or not their families were properly reimbursed for deaths and injuries, whether or not people are paid - I want to see whether or not those stories are followed three months, six months, nine months, a year out, to make sure that those issues are resolved. What would bother me is if they were not."

Erin Blankenship, the co-founder of Equal Playing Field, a non-profit initiative dedicated to challenge gender inequality in sport, grew up in California but lives in Cairo. She was bothered by the off-field issues but didn't hesitate to travel to Qatar for her sixth World Cup, which she gives a mixed review compared to previous editions.

"The Qataris did what the Qatari do very well, right?" Blankenship said. "They invest in infrastructure and that's what they've really focused on as part of their legacy components. I think the prices are pretty outrageous, but it was all part of what I expected.

"There's a lot of really irrational components, even the basic security protocols that are very annoying. The fact that they draw you out in these long snakey lines with single points of entry and exit to a stadium for 50,000 people. It's a control thing. I get that, but it doesn't make sense for the fan experience. That's a bit frustrating, but otherwise I think it's been pretty enjoyable."

An almost universal gripe among US fans has been the last-minute ban of beer sales in match areas and in fan zones only two days before the tournament in a stunning reversal.

Marcus Brown, a Brooklyn native attending his first World Cup and wearing a Clint Dempsey shirt at Sunday night's match between Croatia and Canada, was "not happy" when he learned that beer would be outlawed from inside and around the perimeter of the stadiums. But he said that coming across alcohol has been surprisingly easy thanks to the efforts of a US fan known as Map Man, whose meticulously sourced catalog of the various hotels and restaurants where beer and liquor are sold has been viewed more than 700,000 times, making him a minor cult hero at the tournament.

"To make the decision to cut off beer two days before the tournament makes it feel like a bait-and-switch from the Qatari government," Brown said. "They waited till everybody was here before they announced a decision they probably made up their mind about months or years ago. It's been easy enough to find a drink as long as you're willing to pay $20 for a beer, but it would have been nice to have one or two at the stadiums before the game."

For Kiernan, other concerns around the first World Cup to be staged in a conservative Muslim nation, including the criminalization of homosexuality in Qatar, have not been a problem as she's made her way around the city and surrounding stadiums.

"Everyone has been incredibly nice and helpful," she said. "I have had zero problems. I have spent time with various cultures. I have spent time out and about in the city and in the stadiums with gay men. Nothing has been raised or been an issue. I am not saying that doesn't mean things haven't happened, but as far as my experiences, it's been very easy."

But for now, the attention has turned to Tuesday's match against Iran at the Al Thumama Stadium, where the United States must win to keep their tournament alive and progress to the knockout stage.

"I think we were the better team on the pitch [against England], but we didn't finish," Kiernan said. "It's a young team that plays off each other in interesting ways. I put our fitness, our physicality and our focus up against anyone's. I want to see them go all the way."


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