On the outskirts of Doha, workers watch the World Cup they built

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Far from Doha’s luxury hotels and sprawling new World Cup stadiums, dozens of South Asian workers have taken to a cricket ground on the city’s sandy outskirts to enjoy the tournament they helped create.

Unlike the official FIFA fan zone near the pristine Doha Corniche, this one has no $14 beer or foreign tourists. There are few food options beyond fried Indian snacks, rare football shirts in the crowd, and even fewer women.

Instead, the grassy terrain of Asian Town, a neighborhood of labor camps, is filled with migrant workers from some of the world’s poorest countries. They power Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world, and have helped accomplish its multi-billion dollar stadium construction effort.

Their treatment was the controversial backstory of the 2022 World Cup, since Qatar won the bid to host the football championship. They may face low wages, inhospitable housing and long hours, often in scorching heat.

But on Friday night, as the Netherlands played Ecuador, the stands at the cricket stadium were packed with workers reveling in their one day off from the week.

The lucky ones won a small number of World Cup match tickets that went on sale for just 40 riyals ($10) – a special, cheaper ticket category for residents of Qatar. But for those who can’t afford to go to gleaming stadiums, Asian Town’s giant screens have become a key preview of the tournament that has reshaped the tiny emirate.

“Who can afford to go there? I keep 400 riyals ($109) a month in my pocket,” said Anmol Singh, an electrician, who sends the rest of his $600 salary to his parents and grandparents in Bihar, eastern India. India. “I work to give them everything.”

Though meager by Western standards, wages for migrant workers in Qatar and the oil-rich sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf often exceed what they could earn at home and serve as lifelines for their families in India. in Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Fan zone workers who spoke to an Associated Press reporter on Friday said they coveted their jobs in the country, which has strict speech laws. The years-long boycott of Qatar by four Arab countries has also stoked nationalism among the migrant workforce, which makes up around 85% of the country’s population.

Kaplana Pahadi, a 21-year-old housekeeper from Nepal, strolled through the crowded cricket stadium with three colleagues she called “my family”.

Dressed in a burgundy Qatar jersey, scarf and cap, she said she moved to the energy-rich emirate more than four years ago to pay for medical bills for her mother, who developed heart problems after the death of his father. “She’s still sick,” she said. “I want to help her.”

At halftime, the floodlit stadium became a riot of music and dancing. A famous Indian host whipped up the crowds as Hindi pop blared.

A few men hoisted themselves on the shoulders of their friends. Others jumped with excitement. Most wore jeans and t-shirts, or cream shalwar kameez – a knee-length shirt with loose trousers common in South Asia.

Hundreds of people took out their phones to film the reverie, smiles spreading as women in white LED-lit dresses took the stage.

It was a brutal respite from the daily grind.

“These are hard-working corporate people,” said Imtiaz Malik, a 28-year-old Pakistani computer scientist, pointing to the crowd of men. “But any kind of work is good.”

He said he missed his family in Lahore, Pakistan and wished he could hear their voices more often. Despite the difficulties, he said, Qatar has also become his home.

“This country is getting better,” he said.

The dazzling projector of the World Cup has forced Qatar to overhaul its working system. The country ditched the kafala system that tied workers’ visas to their jobs and set a minimum wage of 1,000 riyals ($275) a month, among other changes. Yet rights groups argue that more needs to be done. Workers may face deferred wages and rack up debt by paying exorbitant recruitment fees to land their jobs.

Imran Khan, 28, said many young men from his hometown of Kolkata, India dream of working in Qatar. He left his parents and brothers behind to look for work in the hospitality industry during the World Cup. But he hasn’t found a job yet.

The competition is fierce and working harder now that the tournament is underway, he said. In the meantime, he spends his days watching matches on the big screen at the cricket stadium next to the mall.

The fan zone allows Khan and legions of other migrant workers to enjoy the World Cup atmosphere just steps from their dormitories. It also means they don’t take the bus to downtown Doha, which is now full of foreign fans watching games and celebrating.

“I can’t explain the excitement,” Khan said. “It’s unreal.”

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Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

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