As the tournament kicks off in Qatar, Richard Steer reflects on his experiences over the first weekend 

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Richard Steer at the British pavilion, Garden of the GREAT

Landing at the Hamad International airport on Friday evening in Doha I was interested to see whether the build-up to the biggest sporting event in the world would impact my arrival. Having worked in the country for over a decade and travelled widely and often in the Middle East, I am used to the lethargy and miserable countenance displayed by most border control officials at midnight during a weekend. But, surprisingly, it was all quite smooth. Even my luggage arrived safely. Better than Heathrow of late.

With the 2022 World Cup hours away predictably there were long, snaking queues of suitably attired football fans from every nation mingling with irritable sports journalists and bemused Arabs, but all was quiet and civilised.

Qatar is around the size of Yorkshire, with the normal population around a third of the size of London. The influx of around 1.2 million visitors to this small country has proved a logistical challenge and over 100 new hotels, metro and other facilities have been constructed to cope. But, like all new projects, a certain element of snagging is bound to have to take place.

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The government-backed inititiative to promote British exports

The whole issue of whether to come or stay away from this unique country has quite rightly been widely discussed. My company has worked in Qatar for many years and we were approached by the British government to sponsor their GREAT initiative during the tournament.

The Foreign Office explained to me that, through this export promotion, they want to promote “Diversity makes Creativity” as a theme to the country and showcase UK business excellence at a large pavilion they have created on the corniche of Doha.

It’s a laudable aim – but one with its critics, I’m sure. Perhaps I am being naive but I think it is much better to be influencing the country from within, than to be throwing stones from outside.

An early guest to the British Pavilion which created a pinch-yourself moment for me was when I found myself standing next to David Beckham

An early guest to the British pavilion which created a pinch-yourself moment for me, was when I found myself standing next to David Beckham in the beautiful Garden of the GREAT, which has been created in the pavilion grounds by the Foreign Office. Think show garden at the Chelsea flower event crossed with an upmarket fan zone complete with more Union flags than you would see at the Cenotaph on poppy day – and posh ice cream rather than Budweiser.

Beckham was there to promote British fashion and, as he talked to the British ambassador from Doha, he seemed wary of getting ambushed by journalists and photographers, who had staked out the pavilion to shout questions that seemed to focus on the ethics of him taking money from the Qataris. The ambassador also seemed ill at ease, and I mused on the impact that the presence of a truly global superstar can have on a career diplomat who – having represented the UK in both Syria and Yemen –  still seemed more nervous operating in a football tournament escorting a tattooed icon than undertaking diplomacy in a war zone.

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Bumping into David Beckham

Next day, not having tickets for the World Cup opener, I attempted to get to the fan zone to watch the match outside the Al Bayt stadium, which has 60,000 seats for spectators and around 1,000 for media and is inspired by the sight of tents in the desert, or so I am told.

Lots of the sports broadcasters are staying at my hotel and, while happy to engage in a bit of pre-match banter, they seemed a little underwhelmed by Qatar v Ecuador. Still, there are 63 matches to go, ladies and gentlemen.

My early attempts to join the fan zone fun were thwarted by the fact that security is super strict, making movement by vehicle impossible, and I could not work up the enthusiasm to walk miles to get a pint of American beer at a cost of £11.

So my initial impressions are that the geography of Doha makes any sort of creation of big-event atmosphere difficult, the country is working hard at being hospitable but travel in and around the stadium is going to present a challenge.

But also it is early days… I return to Doha next weekend with my tickets for the England matches. Then I will get to view the stadium as a fan.

Richard Steer is chair of Gleeds Worldwide