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DOHA, Qatar – The half-hour journey from the airport to the base of the US national team for the men’s World Cup hurtles past skyscrapers and then veers right to an exotic island that used to be the sea.
Upon arrival last weekend, USMNT players cruised past marinas in The Pearl, Qatar’s most exclusive neighborhood. They entered Porto Arabia and drove down a two-lane road with blue-green water on either side. They arrived at Marsa Malaz Kempinski to find waving American flags and unparalleled luxury, an entertainment lounge and a private beach.
“Incredible,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said of the accommodations. “It’s world class.”
Top footballers are naturally accustomed to a certain amount of opulence. But this, the only World Cup hotel on an artificial island equipped by an American football staff eager to meet every conceivable need, is “one of the best,” said striker Tim Weah. Their lounge features big screen TVs, PlayStation 5s, ping pong tables, a pool table and a putting green, players said.
The wider hotel, meanwhile, touts itself as a “majestic palace” that “exudes both Arab and European elegance.” During the World Cup, a standard one-bedroom room costs $5,163 per night. The palace has an ornate spa, a huge “oyster chandelier” and marble throughout. It has seven restaurants and four bars; outdoor pools and paddle courts. It is, in his own words, “an island of regal grandeur.”
The USMNT specifically selected it and included it before competitors could, over two years before they even qualified for this World Cup. In September 2019, FIFA presented them and other countries with more than two dozen potential hotel and training ground combinations. Head coach Gregg Berhalter and longtime U.S. Soccer administrative director Tom King narrowed the list down to three. They traveled to Qatar that month, shortly after friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay, to visit their favorite facilities. They settled on Al-Gharafa SC for football and, preferably, the Marsa Malaz Kempinski for everything else.
King then sat in front of a computer in early October and immediately threw himself into it when the applications opened.
“It was important to try to get it right,” Berhalter said more than three years later, at his first press conference here in Doha. “We put a lot of effort into making it accommodating, to create the kind of environment the players are used to. … We want to be here for a long time, so we want to make them comfortable.
Qatar’s $15 Billion Pearl
The Kempinski is located on a remote piece of land of about 1000 hectares that did not exist two decades ago. The area was then “a subtidal flat inhabited by seagrasses, seaweeds, sponges, shrimps, worms, shellfish and snails.” In 2004, Qatar built a “cofferdam” and built “reclaimed land” both below and above sea level.
Eighteen years and about $15 billion later, The Pearl is Qatar’s top destination for wealthy Westerners – tourists and expats. The central thoroughfare, Pearl Boulevard, winds along artificial beaches and a boardwalk. There are canals that are meant to mimic Venice. There are Maserati dealers and tanning salons, even though the real sun is almost always on. There are yacht clubs and neighborhoods with extravagant European names. There are luxury apartments and meticulously maintained greenery.
There are other five star hotels, not just the Kempinski, but it is the most prestigious of the bunch. From afar it appears to float on the water, a few hundred meters in the Gulf, with the flags of all 32 World Cup participating countries planted around it. You can catch a glimpse by walking around the Costa Malaz district, but only through locked gates to restricted, unused beaches.
The strait that circles the island, separated by a bay, is quaint and peaceful, with a playground and townhouses bordering it. There is a hot chocolate truck and sports facilities. There are roundabouts and a three-tiered fountain that two workers took care of on a recent afternoon. And of course there is construction.
There have been allegations of forced labor and appalling working conditions at Kempinski, as in many locations in Qatar. There were, according to The Guardian, excessive hours and wages below the minimum wage – which itself is less than $1.50 an hour. The contrast with the luxury of the hotel was great. Liverpool reportedly turned down a chance to stay in the 2019 Club World Cup, citing ethical concerns.
Partly to clear its conscience, US Soccer hired a compliance officer, Lisa Saad, a former executive director of the US Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, to oversee the hotel, the other suppliers here and their labor practices. Saad, says U.S. Soccer, “attends meetings with workers and management, visits workers’ accommodations, and reviews Department of Labor audits.”
As journalist Grant Wahl pointed out, it can be difficult to control the intricate web of contractors and subcontractors who supply Qatari hotels and construction projects with migrant workers. Less than a year before the World Cup, a security subcontractor broke laws and workers’ rights. But US Soccer’s efforts appear to have brought about some change, while also paving the way for relatively controversy-free comfort.
‘We have everything we need’
When the first of the 26 players arrived in Doha last Thursday, Berhalter informed them: “Unpack your things, put your books on the bookshelf, put your clothes in the drawers, make yourself comfortable here.
Because this is not a typical World Cup that requires travel within the country. Whereas in 2014, as defender DeAndre Yedlin said, “in Brazil you flew for three and four hours, so you didn’t really have a base – we had a base hotel, but it didn’t really feel like a base” – in Qatar they’ll be flying every night of spend their World Cup in the Kempinski.
Outside of their bus rides to practices and games – all between 15 and 40 minutes – they will spend most of their time there. Aaronson said he “played a lot of pool” one day. The players’ lounge, built by US Soccer staffers before the team arrived, serves as a meeting and entertainment center. On Monday, Weah said, players curled up in blankets and watched the Netflix documentary “FIFA Uncovered.”
When asked what he thought of it, Weah realized he had put himself in an awkward corner given the subject matter of the documentary.
“Me personally, I didn’t watch it. I was busy,” he said. “But I mean – hey.” He smiled.
But the lounge itself is more than comfortable. “Big couches, we all just lay with blankets,” Weah said. “And it’s cool to just be with everyone.”
“And our rooms are great. Our chefs have done an exceptional job,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “We have everything we need. It’s been great.”