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DOHA, Qatar — The half-hour journey from the airport to the U.S. men’s national team World Cup base zips past skyscrapers and then snakes right, onto an exotic island that used to be sea.
Upon arrival last weekend, USMNT players rode past marinas on The Pearl, Qatar’s most exclusive district. They cruised into Porto Arabia and down a two-lane road with blue-green water on either side. They arrived at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski to find waving American flags and unmatched luxury, an entertainment lounge and a private beach.
“Unbelievable,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said of the accommodations. “It’s world-class.”
Top-flight soccer players, of course, are used to some degree of lavishness. But this, the only World Cup hotel on an artificial island, outfitted by a U.S. Soccer staff intent on meeting every imaginable need, is “one of the best,” forward Tim Weah said. Their lounge boasts big-screen TVs, PlayStation 5s, pingpong tables, a pool table and a putting green, players said.
The broader hotel, meanwhile, touts itself as a “majestic palace” that “exudes both Arabian and European elegance.” During the World Cup, a standard one-bedroom costs $5,163 per night. The palace has an ornate spa, a massive “oyster chandelier” and marble everywhere. It has seven restaurants and four bars; outdoor pools and paddle courts. It is, in its own words, “an island of palatial grandeur.”
The USMNT specifically selected it, and snapped it up before any competitors could, more than two years before they’d even qualified for this World Cup. In September 2019, FIFA presented them and other nations with over two dozen potential pairings of hotel and training ground. Head coach Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer’s longtime director of administration Tom King narrowed the list to three. They traveled to Qatar that month, shortly after friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay, to tour their preferred facilities. They settled on Al-Gharafa SC for soccer and, most desirably, the Marsa Malaz Kempinski for everything else.
King then sat in front of a computer in early October, and pounced immediately when applications opened.
“It was important to try to get it right,” Berhalter said over three years later, at his first news conference here in Doha. “We went to a lot of lengths to make it accommodating, to create the type of environment that the players are used to. … We want to be here for a long time, so we want to make it comfortable for them.”
Qatar’s $15 billion Pearl
The Kempinski sits on a secluded extension of roughly 1,000 acres of land that, two decades ago, did not exist. The area was, back then, “a sub-littoral mud flat inhabited by sea grasses, seaweeds, sponges, shrimps, worms, shellfish and snails.” In 2004, Qatar built a “cofferdam” and constructed “reclaimed land” both below and above sea level.
Eighteen years and roughly $15 billion later, The Pearl is Qatar’s top destination for wealthy Westerners — tourists and expat residents. Its central thoroughfare, Pearl Boulevard, winds past man-made beaches and a boardwalk. There are canals meant to replicate Venice. There are Maserati dealerships and tanning salons — even though the actual sun is almost always blazing. There are yacht clubs and precincts with extravagant European names. There are upscale apartments and precisely manicured greenery.
There are other five-star hotels, not just the Kempinski, but it is the most prestigious of the bunch. From afar, it seems to hover on water, a few hundred feet out in the Gulf, with the flags of all 32 World Cup participating nations planted around it. You can get a glimpse by walking around the Costa Malaz precinct, but only through locked gates to restricted, unused beaches.
The street that circles around the island, separated by bay, is quaint and peaceful, with a playground and borderline mansions. There’s a hot chocolate truck and sports facilities. There are roundabouts and a three-tier fountain that two workers were tending to on a recent afternoon. And, of course, there is construction.
There have been allegations of forced labor and dreadful working conditions at the Kempinski, like at many locations throughout Qatar. There were, according to The Guardian, excessive hours and salaries below minimum wage — which itself is less than $1.50 per hour. The contrast with the hotel’s luxury was stark. Liverpool reportedly rejected a chance to stay at it during the 2019 Club World Cup, citing ethical concerns.
U.S. 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 supervise the hotel, its other vendors here and their labor practices. Saad, U.S. Soccer says, “attends meetings with workers and management, visits workers’ accommodations, and reviews audits produced by the Ministry of Labor.”
As journalist Grant Wahl detailed, auditing the complicated 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 U.S. Soccer’s efforts seem to have effected some change, all while paving the way to 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 bookshelf, put your clothes in the drawers, get comfortable here.”
Because this is not a typical World Cup that requires intra-country 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 their World Cup at the Kempinski.
Outside of their bus rides to training and games — all between 15 and 40 minutes — they will spend most of their hours there. Aaronson said he spent one day “playing a ton of pool.” The players’ lounge, constructed by U.S. Soccer staffers before the team arrived, serves as a bonding and relaxation hub. 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’d walked himself into an uncomfortable corner, given the documentary’s subject.
“Me personally, I wasn’t watching it. I was preoccupied,” he said. “But, I mean — hey.” He smiled.
But the lounge itself is beyond comfortable. “Big couches, we were all just laying down with blankets,” Weah said. “And it’s cool just to be with everyone.”
“And our rooms are great. Our chefs have done an exceptional job,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “We have everything we need. It’s been great.”