Sneaking out of lockdown, paying small fortunes, and contracting Covid: the travails of Chinese soccer fans at the FIFA World Cup
Qatar’s Lusail Stadium was full of fans sporting the blue and white colors of Argentina, and the red, white, and green of Mexico, as the two nations battled it out on the pitch during their FIFA World Cup group match on November 26. But among the sea of South and Central Americans, one small corner of the crowd was decked all in red and brandishing five-star red flags.
Despite their national team’s failure to qualify for the tournament, strict Covid-19 travel restrictions in China when the tournament began, and the continuing prospect of lengthy quarantine upon reentry into the PRC, a hardy band of Chinese fans have managed to join the crowds of soccer fans in Qatar. Many have come at great personal expense, all to catch a glimpse of the world’s best players—and to travel abroad for the first time in a long time, likely years.
Yang Hao, a 36-year-old soccer fan from the southwestern city of Chongqing, had to escape tightening pandemic restrictions to get to Doha. With his apartment complex officially locked down, and no one allowed in or out, he snuck out through the unattended underground parking lot at midnight on November 27 to make his flight.
“I called a trusted friend and asked him to drive me to the airport, then drive my car back to its original location,” Yang tells TWOC. “My helpful pal sneaked out of his complex as well.” Yang spent over a week in Qatar watching 10 matches at the World Cup, before returning to Chongqing and undergoing centralized quarantine for five days.
Yang was inspired to travel to Qatar, despite the considerable expense and tiresome quarantine policies, after he quit his real estate job at the heavily indebted property company Evergrande. “The Chinese housing market collapsed, the project I was in charge of had seen no progress at all, so I had barely anything to do and left the company,” says Yang. “I thought I might as well go to Qatar to watch the World Cup. I’ve loved soccer for almost 30 years, and I went to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.”
In Doha, Yang would bring the Chinese flag to every match and get a photo of himself with it. “I just want to show that Chinese soccer fans are here too, and we will continue to wait for our team to find ways to narrow its gap with the world’s top teams.”
Not everyone who made the trip to Qatar from China is a longtime fan like Yang. Mandy Luo, a 27-year-old female who runs a startup in Beijing, describes herself as “not that into soccer,” but tells TWOC she just wanted to escape the strict pandemic restrictions that were in place across China until the end of November.
Luo only decided to take the trip a week in advance, and almost left for Doha without any luggage. Five days before her November 24 flight, her apartment block was suddenly locked down because one of her neighbors tested positive. “I wasn’t at home when the lockdown started; I feel so lucky for that,” Luo tells TWOC. But stuck outside of her apartment, Luo had no way of retrieving her belongings. “I carried my passport with me, but my credit card was left at my place, plus all the stuff I’d packed for going abroad.” Eventually, some of Luo’s friends lent her suitcases, cosmetics, and clothes so that she would not leave China empty-handed.
Once in Qatar, many fans were shocked by the price of accommodation. A room at the Holiday Inn can cost 500 US dollars per night during the tournament, while the usual price is around 60 dollars per night. The organizers have established areas with tents and portacabins for those on a tighter budget, but one night in these cabins starts at 207 US dollars, according to the Qatar World Cup’s Official Accommodation Agency.
Luo stayed in one such cabin. She recalls checking in on her first night and being shocked by the living conditions: “It was really terrible. How could I have spent 100 dollars to share a room in a cabin with no bathroom?” Even worse, “these cabins reminded me of some of the makeshift hospitals used during the Covid-19 pandemic in China,” Luo tells TWOC.
Still, Luo was pleased to experience the lack of pandemic regulations in Qatar. “You can’t see anyone wearing a mask at the World Cup,” she tells TWOC happily. Yang, however, experienced the drawback of those relaxed policies when he contracted Covid-19 halfway through his trip. He still managed to see the matches, but struggled to enjoy them as much as he would have liked.
Covid might prove unavoidable, but some have been avoiding the high prices and cramped cabins by staying outside of Qatar. Liang Baoyi has been staying in Egypt since December 5, but traveled to Qatar to watch Argentina play the Netherlands on December 9 and Croatia on December 13.
The 30-year-old stage designer from Shenzhen is here to see one man only: Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi. “My team is Argentina, and I’ve had ‘Messi mania’ for eight years. I watch every match that Messi plays,” Liang tells TWOC. “I’ve come to Qatar to watch all of Argentina’s games until Messi realizes his lifelong dream of guiding Argentina to glory in his last World Cup.”
But even though Liang is saving some money on her accommodation, there’s no way to avoid the sky-high prices of tickets if she wants to watch every match involving Messi, whose Argentina side will play France in the tournament’s final on Sunday.
In fact, most tickets for Argentina’s games throughout the tournament have been long sold-out, only available at extortionate prices from scalpers. Chinese fans of Argentina have set up WeChat groups to track available tickets and prices. In the private resale market, it could cost between 1,000 and 1,500 US dollars for a ticket that originally sold for between 70 and 220 dollars on FIFA’s official website.
“It is hard to get tickets now but I will head out [to Qatar] again for the final,” Liang tells TWOC. “It’s been 36 years since Argentina won the World Cup, and 35-year-old Lionel Messi might just be the man to end that drought,” Liang adds, with excitement in her eyes.