The Gold line at 10 to eight on Thursday night in Doha. A crowded metro train is heading west towards the Khalifa International Stadium for Japan v Spain. A quick stock take of the carriage reveals the following: one Filipino woman from Hong Kong in a Spain shirt and baseball cap; two Japanese women in face masks talking to two Nepalese friends (one of whom flew to Qatar just for the game), both wearing Japan kits; three Korean-Americans searching for tickets; a family of Mexicans (a sombrero gives it away) rooting for Spain; three rowdy Saudi Arabia supporters; and above the door a calling card from the Argentinians who are never far away – a Panini sticker of Diego Maradona from USA 94.
It was an unlikely combination, but not an unusual one in the city these past few weeks and here’s the argument: the Doha Metro is the place to be at this World Cup. If you want to spend time talking to people from across the world, if you want to learn about their hopes and fears (mainly football-related), if you want to laugh, to sing and be reminded how much human beings have in common, then take the train. Or march up and down the escalators, or congregate in the concourses. Really, honestly, it’s where it’s at.
There are a number of reasons why, starting with a substantial feat of engineering. The Doha Metro has three lines: the Gold or Historic line, which runs east to west through the older parts of the city; the Red or Coast line, which heads north to south linking the heart of Doha with the new development of Lusail, about 40km away; and finally, the Green or Education line, which takes in Qatar University, the National Library and, well, the Mall of Qatar.
It serves 37 stations along 75km of track and, 12 years ago, not a single bit of it existed. A venture involving Qatari planners, German rail operators, Japanese train manufacturers, American engineering and construction, French IT systems and British insurers, the project cost about $36bn and was delivered in nine years from the time the first tunnel boring machine activated its thrust system. It opened in 2019, in time for the Club World Cup, and around 60 more stations are planned to be added by 2026.
The experience of riding the trains is just as impressive. As an experience it is unfailingly pleasant. Driverless trains glide between stations with nary a bump. They arrive every three minutes (maybe five at 2am) and give you enough time to get on without rushing. “Event team members” on the platforms prevent overcrowding.
For the duration of the tournament, travel on the metro has been free to anyone with a Hayya card, the visa-turned-ID card obligatory for visitors. The gold-class carriage, a pretty pointless first-class section (you’re rarely on the train for more than 20 minutes), has also been democratised for the month. The gold-class lounges, however – tiny waiting rooms at the station where rich customers can sit in a stiff-backed chair – remain subscriber-only.
If all this sounds a bit train-spottery, it was certainly of interest to Hassan, a man in charge of a group of Morocco fans heading to the Canada game on Thursday. He, like anybody else who would talk on the subject, was a big fan of the metro but he had his complaints.
“The carriages are too small, you have to break the group in two,” he said.
“And the signage is confusing – you don’t know which direction you’re going in sometimes or which side the door is going to open. It is important that you agree a place to meet before you travel, otherwise you might get lost.”
All relevant information, but Hassan, who travelled with a 40-strong gang from Casablanca, was also indulging in the more important activity of in-train banter. His Moroccans had been joined in the carriage by two Canada fans, one wearing the desirable (and sold-out) furry headdress that mixes Arab tradition with the smiling features of the World Cup mascot La’eeb. The other wore a Canada baseball cap with a Ghana paper party hat on top.
Hassan was straight into them: “Canada? Go home!” he said. “Don’t you know it’s Christmas time? It’s time you went back for your presents!”
When the Red line train arrived at Oqba Ibn Nafie station, the Canada fans got their own back, (below) waving an enormous maple leaf flag in the faces of the Moroccans as they passed down the escalator, singing a chorus of “Olé Olé Olé”.
One Moroccan fan, Osama, also from Casablanca, insisted on giving an interview. He did not have much to say, describing the metro as “very well organised”, but he was certainly memorable. Skinny as a rake and wearing rose-tinted John Lennon spectacles, he also had a pair of inflatable moose antlers on his head, given to him by a Canadian.
At this point it is perhaps important to pause. On 28 February 2016, a construction worker from the Philippines, Juanito B Pardillo, died while working on the metro project. In April of that year the Building and Wood Workers’ International union said that his family were still waiting for an official explanation of what happened, though media reports suggested Pardillo had been helping to excavate a tunnel while it was raining when it collapsed, something that went against safety rules. Four other workers were injured. They were part of an estimated 18,000 workers working for a construction contractor on the project at the time.
For most users of the metro, however, any contact with migrant workers is likely to be with a Kenyan. They are the men who, exclusively it seems according to the foibles of the subcontracting process, fulfil the role of directing tourists in and out of the stations. Working long days, monitoring crowds that manifest only at certain times, it’s a tough gig, but these “customer service executives” have taken a mundane job and made it into something more.
It started with Abubakr Abbass, the 23-year-old whose job it was to direct crowds at the busy Souq Waqif station. Instead of issuing instructions in the time-honoured officious manner, he turned his directions into a chant: “Metro? This way! Metro? This way!” In a city full of people looking for a communal experience, it caught on.
Crowds would start the chant as they arrived at stations or stepped off trains. Abbass became a hit on TikTok and was a guest on the pitch during the England v USA group-stage match. Other young Kenyans then took the idea on, creating dance routines (complete with pointy finger foam hands) and writing longer songs. “Dear customer. Where are you going?” went one example. “You can go for the metro, or the tram, you can go this way, this way, this way.” Some who heard that version reported it being still stuck in their heads days later.
What the Kenyans tapped into was something that can be lacking in the official spaces of the Fifa World Cup in Qatar 2022: a sense of humour. And that they were able to practise it in and around the metro was perhaps not a coincidence.
Not only is the train network one of the few places free to use in Doha, it’s also a space where you can stand still and just be. Even better, you might be able to sit down on a comfortable chair (rather than, say, the tarmac of the official Fifa fan park). It’s a space that is occupied by the public, where people all over the world gather in unexpected combinations.
I have watched matches there, discussed politics, compared prices and sought tips. I have sung and I have danced and most of all I have laughed. The metro has been an actual pleasure.