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DOHA, Qatar — The half-hour trip from the airport to the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup base zips over skyscrapers and then snakes right into an exotic island that used to be sea.
Upon their arrival last weekend, the USMNT players passed through marinas at The Pearl, Qatar’s most exclusive district. They cruised into Porto Arabia and drove down a two-lane road with turquoise water on either side. They arrived at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski to find American flags flying and unparalleled luxury, an entertainment lounge and a private beach.
“Unbelievable,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said of the accommodations. “It’s world class.”
Top footballers, of course, are used to some degree of luxury. But this, the only World Cup hotel on a man-made island staffed by American soccer staff intent on meeting every imaginable need, is “one of the best,” forward Tim Weah said. Their living room has big-screen TVs, PlayStation 5s, ping-pong tables, a pool table and a putting green, players said.
The wider hotel, meanwhile, bills itself as a “magnificent palace” that “oozes both Arabian and European elegance”. During the World Cup, a standard one-bedroom costs $5,163 per night. The palace has an elaborate spa, a huge ‘oyster chandelier’ and marble throughout. It has seven restaurants and four bars. outdoor pools and rowing courts. It is, in his own words, “an island of palatial grandeur.”
The USMNT specifically chose it and released it before all the competitors could, more than two years before they even qualified for this World Cup. In September 2019, FIFA presented them and other nations with more than two dozen potential hotel and training facility pairings. Head coach Greg Burhalter and longtime director of football operations Tom King narrowed the list down to three. They traveled to Qatar that month, shortly after friendlies with Mexico and Uruguay, to tour their preferred facilities. They settled on Al-Gharafa SC for football and, most desirable, Marsa Malaz Kempinski for everything else.
Then King sat down in front of a computer in early October and immediately pounced when the applications opened.
“It was important to try to get it right,” Berhalter said three years later, at his first press conference here in Doha. “We’ve done a lot to make it enjoyable, to create the kind of environment players are used to. … We want to be here for a long time, so we want to make them comfortable.”
The $15 billion Pearl of Qatar
The Kempinski is located on a secluded extension of approximately 1,000 acres of land that, two decades ago, did not exist. The area was, then, “a sub-coastal mud flat inhabited by sea grasses, algae, sponges, shrimps, worms, shellfish and snails”. In 2004, Qatar built a “bed fence” and constructed “reclaimed land” both below and above sea level.
Eighteen years and some $15 billion later, The Pearl is Qatar’s premier destination for wealthy Westerners – tourists and expat residents alike. Its main street, Pearl Boulevard, passes man-made beaches and a pedestrian promenade. There are canals meant to replicate Venice. There are Maserati dealerships and tanning salons — even though the actual sun is almost always shining. There are yacht clubs and precincts with extravagant European names. There are luxury apartments and meticulously manicured greenery.
There are other five-star hotels, not just the Kempinski, but it is the most famous of the bunch. From a distance, it appears to float on the water, a few hundred feet out into 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 precinct, but only through locked gates to limited, unused beaches.
The road that circles the island, separated by a bay, is picturesque and peaceful, with a playground and bordering mansions. There is a hot chocolate truck and sports facilities. There are roundabouts and a three-tiered fountain that two workers tended to on a recent afternoon. And, of course, there is construction.
There have been allegations of forced labor and appalling working conditions at the Kempinski, as in many locations across Qatar. There were, according to The Guardian, excessive hours and wages below the minimum wage – which is less than $1.50 per hour. The contrast with the luxury of the hotel was stark. Liverpool have reportedly turned down the chance to stay with him during the 2019 Club World Cup, citing ethical concerns.
US Soccer, in part to clear its conscience, hired a “compliance officer,” Lisa Saad, a former executive director at the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, to oversee the hotel, its other vendors here and their labor practices. . Saad, US Soccer says, “attends meetings with workers and management, visits workers’ accommodations and reviews inspections conducted by the Department of Labor.”
As journalist Grant Wahl explained, controlling the complex web of contractors and subcontractors that supply Qatari hotels and construction projects with migrant workers can be difficult. Less than a year before the World Cup, a security subcontractor was violating laws and workers’ rights. But US Soccer’s efforts seem to have changed some of the changes, all 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 advised them:Unpack your things, put your books on the shelf, put your clothes in the drawers, make yourself comfortable here.’
Because this isn’t a typical World Cup that requires domestic travel. Whereas in 2014, as defender DeAndre Yedlin said, “in Brazil, you were flying 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 will spend every night of the World Cup in Kempinski.
Aside from their bus rides to practice and games – all between 15 and 40 minutes – they will spend most of their time there. Aaronson said he spent a day “playing a ton of pool.” The players’ lounge, built by American football officials before the team arrived, serves as a hub for connection and relaxation. On Monday, Weah said, the players curled up in blankets and watched the Netflix documentary “FIFA Uncovered.”
When asked what he thought about it, Weah realized he had put himself in an uncomfortable corner given the documentary’s subject matter.
“I personally did not see it. I was concerned,” he said. “But, I mean—hey.” He smiled.
But the living room itself is beyond comfortable. “Big couches, we were all lying on blankets,” Weah said. “And it’s nice to be with everyone.”
“And our rooms are great. Our chefs have done a great job,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “We have everything we need. It was wonderful.”