DOHA, Qatar — The men grappled with each other to board the quickly filling bus. Others wriggled in through the windows, scaling the outside, using the large wheels as footholds and leaving scuff-marks on the white exterior with their shoes.
These weren’t refugees fleeing disaster. They were migrant workers in 2022 World Cup host Qatar, fighting to earn a few dollars. The job: Pretend to be a sports fan.
Qataris boast they’re mad for sports. The ruling emir of the oil-and-gas rich Gulf nation is so fond of football he bought Paris Saint-Germain, now France’s powerhouse team. Lobbying World Cup organizer FIFA in 2010, his royal mother said: "For us, football is not just a mere game or a sport among many. It is THE sport."
Pitching successfully in November to track and field’s governing body to host its world championships in 2019, Qatar bid presenter Aphrodite Moschoudi said: "Qatar has a true passion for sports. Everything in our country revolves around sport."
Or, when passion is lacking, around money.
When the world’s second-richest people per capita can’t find time or be bothered to fill their sports arenas, migrant workers are paid to take their place.
Thirty Qatar riyals — equivalent to $8 — won’t buy a beer in the luxury waterside hotel in Doha, the capital, where Qatari movers-and-shakers unwind. But for this pittance, workers from Africa and Asia sprint under blinding sun in the Doha industrial zone where they’re housed and surround a still-moving bus like bees on honey. They sit through volleyball, handball and football, applaud to order, do the wave with no enthusiasm and even dress up in white robes and head-scarves as Qataris, to plump up "home" crowds.
The Associated Press squeezed aboard one of three buses that ferried about 150 workers, through dense traffic of luxury cars and past luxury villas they’ll never be able to afford, to be fake fans at the Qatar Open of international beach volleyball in November.
The FIVB, volleyball’s governing body, trumpeted on its website that the tournament, part of its World Tour, "brought out the crowds." But migrants from Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and elsewhere, who work in Qatar as bus and taxi drivers for the state-owned transport company and for other employers, told the AP they were there for money, not volleyball.
Word of payment filtered around their crowded dormitories. At 2:30 p.m., clumps of men on their off-day gathered outside, inhaling dust stirred up by passing forklifts and trucks.
Someone spotted the first bus far down the street that cuts through the bleak-scape of construction and piled dirt. The bus filled instantly. A second and third bus — and more frantic scrambling — followed.
Breathing heavily, men squeezed into seats, three on one side of the aisle, two on the other. There were no safety belts and the ceiling fans didn’t turn. One man without a seat squatted on the floor. To shouts of "get down!" he made himself small when a policeman was spotted on the journey.
One by one, from memory, the men reeled off their employee numbers — no names — to a man who methodically shuffled down the aisle, jotting down the details on a crumpled piece of paper. This ensured he’d later know who to pay, workers said.
At the Al Gharafa Sports Club, we disembarked and formed a line. An official in Qatari robes counted us in, with taps on the shoulder. French volleyballers Edouard Rowlandson and Youssef Krou were winning their bronze-medal match as we filled seats, making the arena appear almost full.
"Bizarre," Rowlandson said when told of the hired spectators. "But we prefer that to playing in front of nobody."
Ahmed al-Sheebani, executive secretary of the Qatar Volleyball Association, rebuffed the AP’s questions, reaching over to switch off this reporter’s voice recorder.
Reached later by phone, FIVB media director Richard Baker thanked the AP for making it aware of the fake fans and said the federation will "seek clarification" from Qatari organizers.
"It’s news to us," he said.
But not to Qatar’s government. A survey of 1,079 Qatar residents published this January by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics suggested that paid fans may be turning Qataris off sport. The ministry said two-thirds of Qataris surveyed did not attend any football matches during the previous season and two-thirds of respondents cited "the spread of paid fans" as a "significant reason" keeping audiences away.
At the volleyball, some for-hire spectators were offered less than others. Security guards and office boys from Kenya said a promise of 20 riyals ($5.50) each drew 40 people onto their bus. A Nigerian manservant said he, too, was getting just 20.
Numerous workers said they regularly make up numbers at sports events. Qatar league football games pay 20 or 25 riyals, they said. A Kenyan said he made 50 riyals at handball.
An added bonus: the volleyball arena had free Wi-Fi, allowing workers to get news and emails from home. They pulled out smartphones, ignoring a crowd organizer waving a plastic hand who urged them to clap to Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky."
Thirty riyals buys food for three days when you’re eating just once a day to save money for families back home, workers said. And watching sports, some said, is less tedious than whiling away off-duty hours in Doha’s back-of-beyond industrial zone.
"Shaking my body all over … being in the crowd and shouting and dancing" was great fun for Adu, a trainee bus driver from Ghana who gave just his first name.
"Being there and getting paid is a plus for me."
Afterward, the transport company workers waited nearly three hours in the dark, on barren land near the arena, for return buses. Contacted separately later by phone, three of them confirmed they got 30 riyals each in cash, either on the bus back or in their dormitories.
On an hourly basis, that came out at just over $1 per hour.