After walking up the steps of the Saud Bin Abdulrahman Stadium to look down on the immaculate green turf, the prospect of playing football is far from unappealing. The suffocating heat makes it uncomfortable to be outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes at the peak of the day.
This is where England will train during the World Cup later this month.
With white buildings visible above the low stands before disappearing into the desert haze and the call to prayer echoing as the clock strikes 4pm, the setting is a reminder that the World Cup will be very different.
The contest in Qatar has been affected by controversy and human rights concerns, viz The athletic Explored as you visit the country’s eight stadiums in preparation for the world coming to town.
And after visiting the stadiums, The athletic I thought it was also worth touring some of the World Cup training venues for further insight into what players might experience when they arrive.
when The athletic Visits in July, an empty car park surrounds the stadium where England will train. There are some food and drink outlets that are open even though not many people are around.
They cater to drive-thru visitors who pull up in their air-conditioned vehicles to grab a sandwich or an iced coffee in the heat of the day. One coffee stand is staffed by Filipino workers Cecile and Kane.
Kane, of course, shares her name with England captain Harry, who will soon be practicing on the pitch just behind her stall. Initially, she says she hasn’t heard of him, although after being shown a photograph she unconvincingly suggests he might look familiar. She is not a big football fan, preferring basketball, like many of her compatriots.
The two women had no idea the England team would be coming here, but they watched a match recently at one of Qatar’s new stadiums after tournament organizers then offered free tickets to locals to try out the facilities.
Qataris make up a small minority of the population of a country that has imported labor on a vast scale in recent years to prepare for the World Cup. Impressive as the transformation may be, it has come at a human cost. Migrant workers from many countries are exploited, injured and, in the worst cases, lose their lives.
The Saud Bin Abdulrahman Stadium is not one of the new developments, but an older, smaller facility. It is usually the home of Al Wakrah SC, who finished third in the Qatar Stars League last season and won it in 1999 and 2001.
Few of the team’s current players will be familiar outside the Middle East, but former stars include World Cup winner Frank LeBoeuf, who played 10 games for the club in 2004-05; former Premier League players Youssef Chippo and Alain Goma; And striker Alan Waddle, cousin of England legend Chris, who had a brief spell here in 1986.
The site has training facilities and a gym. There is table football in the corridors. There is also a canteen with plastic chairs and garish wallpaper with a large screen that may soon be used for tactical instructions.
It’s all very pleasant, but not luxurious, and will be a far cry from the facilities at Premier League clubs, although things may look very different now compared to in the summer, when there was still building work.
Qatar is only 100 miles from top to bottom, making it by far the smallest country ever to host a World Cup.
The vast majority of the population lives in the capital Doha, with seven of the eight stadiums accessible on the Doha Metro system. The eighth, Al Bayt, is only a 25-minute drive from the nearest metro stop.
All but two of the World Cup teams will be based in and around Doha.
An exception to the Doha cluster is Germany. The 2014 winners are heading to the Zulal Wellness Resort on the country’s northern tip, an 80-minute drive north of the capital.
Belgium was initially envious of their European rival’s training camp, figuring it would be better to travel a little further for each match for the benefit of a combined hotel and training base.
Roberto Martinez’s side eventually found another option at the Hilton Salva in the country’s southwest region, a short distance from Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, a country that has also qualified for the tournament.
The bases were allocated according to a first-come-first-served preference system, and each training base and hotel had to be approved by FIFA’s independent monitoring service.
Teams are asked to put in first, second and third options, and whoever asks for the first option first and qualified quickly has allocated their choice.
This does not rule out last-minute chaos – in 2018, Brazil changed their mind a week before. That didn’t help them, 2-1 to Belgium in the quarter-finals, four years after the humiliating 7-1 home defeat to Germany in the semi-finals.
Each federation has a different thought process – whether it’s cost, close to the city versus space, or even superstition – some nations won’t say their preferred base before qualifying in case they “jinx” it.
Getting away from the hustle and bustle of central Doha is appealing to some.
This is very much the case for England’s team hotel, the Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, a short drive from the stadium in which they will train.
when The athletic Visits, we are welcomed inside by staff and can take photos despite turning up unannounced.
The venue is luxurious with separate low-rise lodges giving players plenty of space to relax between training sessions and matches.
There are wellness rooms, a well-equipped gym, and the hotel opens directly onto a glorious sandy beach. Fans hoping to share breakfast with Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling will be disappointed – rooms have been unavailable to book for months.
This is a “dry” hotel. The topic of alcohol is endlessly debated at the beginning of the tournament, with many restrictions on its sale in Qatar.
Those who want a drink will not find it impossible, but things will be different from other tournaments. Alcohol is readily available in hotel bars but not served outside them, for example in restaurants or at the airport. There will be a fan zone at Central Bidda Park where alcohol will be served, albeit at limited times.
Even in this relaxed, glamorous setting, it’s hard to escape the big questions hanging over the World Cup – a Guardian investigation earlier this year found security guards working in Doha who paid extortionate recruitment fees and worked 12-hour shifts for just £1 ($1.18) per hour.
A half-hour drive to the north on the other side of the Doha suburbs is another stadium; This is slightly larger but looks quite similar from the outside to the one where England will train.
With the SUVs parking up to get drive-through iced coffee, the wide highways stretching out into the desert and the suffocating summer heat, the western outskirts of Doha feel a bit like the dusty southwest of the USA.
If you squint and ignore the mosques, as well as the signs in Arabic and English, you might be in Arizona.
The Thani bin Jassim Stadium is where the US
The stadium is usually home to Al-Gharafa, another Qatar Stars League team with an illustrious past, winning seven league titles, although not since 2010. Famous names to have played for the club include 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly, Netherlands star Wesley Sneijder and Costa Rica legend Paulo Wanchope. Current players include Gabriel Pires, on loan from Benfica, and Jonathan Kodjia, formerly of Aston Villa and Bristol City.
The stadium will likely be heavily guarded when the USMNT arrive, but in July it’s easy to walk off the street, uninvited and unannounced, and look around the stadium and its buildings.
Although the Middle East is in constant turmoil, Qatar is a generally safe country and the US
There is an indoor sports center on the same site and facilities include a large gym (above), offices and rest areas. There is also a tactics board with rows of chairs from which players can listen to coach Gregg Berhalter’s instructions. With swish marble floors and plenty of space inside, the surroundings are notably grander than those at Al Wakrah, although the medical room did need some work in July.
Just to the north of Doha is Lusail, a “planned city” mapped and built over the past two decades, with a spectacular skyline fit for a science-fiction film.
The stop before Lusail on the gleaming Doha Metro is Qatar University.
Visiting in the height of summer, there is hardly anyone here and the car parks sit empty under elevated train tracks heading back to Doha as well as to the new Lusail Stadium.
The university is huge and the facilities are new and shiny, although this time a security guard does not allow The athletic Freely wander around the indoor facilities.
This airy site will soon play host to arguably the world’s greatest footballer, as an Argentinian side captained by Lionel Messi will be based here for the tournament. Two other sides expected to challenge in the business end of the tournament, Spain and the Netherlands, will also be based here, but training on different pitches.
The complex is vast so there will be room for all three to train without getting in each other’s way or overhearing tactical instructions.
These places will all likely be under high security during the tournament itself to stop curious fans from disturbing their heroes preparing for some of the biggest moments of their lives.
It is difficult to predict yet which stadium, beachfront hotel or university campus will become known to audiences around the world.
But when hundreds of the world’s best footballers squeeze into this mid-sized city, we’re sure to see some drama backstage at the training facilities and on the pitch.
(Top photo: Simon Holmes/NurPhoto via Getty Images)