Inside England and USMNT’s World Cup training facilities in Qatar

After walking up the steps of the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium to look down at the immaculate green turf, the prospect of playing football is distinctly unappealing. The suffocating heat makes it uncomfortable to be outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes at the peak of the day.

This is where England will train during the World Cup later this month.

With white buildings visible above the low stands before they disappear into the desert haze and the call to prayer echoing as the clock strikes 4pm, the setting is a reminder that this World Cup will be very different.

The Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium

The contest in Qatar is set by controversy and human rights concerns, as The Athletic explored when visiting the country’s eight stadiums during preparation for the world coming to town.

And having visited the stadiums, The Athletic thought it was also worth touring some of the World Cup training venues for further insight about what players might experience when they arrive.

When The Athletic visits in July, an empty car park surrounds the stadium where England will train. There are several food and drinks outlets which are open despite not many people being around.

They cater to drive-through visitors who pull up in their air-conditioned vehicles to grab a sandwich or an iced coffee in the heat of the day. One coffee stand is staffed by Filipino workers Cecile and Kane.

Kane, of course, shares her name with England captain Harry, who will soon be practicing on the pitch just behind her stall. Initially, she says she hasn’t heard from him, though after being shown a photograph she unconvincingly suggests he might look familiar. She is not a big football fan, preferring basketball, like many of her compatriots.

The two women have no idea that the England team will be coming here, but they did watch a match recently in one of Qatar’s new stadiums after tournament organizers doled out free tickets to locals to test the facilities.

Cecile and Kane work in a coffee stand near the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium

Qataris make up a small minority of the population of a country which has imported labor on a vast scale in recent years to prepare for the World Cup. Impressive as the transformation might be, it has come at a human cost. Migrant workers from many countries have been exploited, injured and, in the worst cases, lost their lives.

The Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium is not one of the new developments, but an older, smaller facility. It is usually home to Al Wakrah SC, who came third in last season’s Qatar Stars League and won it in 1999 and 2001.

Few of the team’s current players will be familiar outside the Middle East, but former stars include World Cup winner Frank Leboeuf, who played 10 games for the club in 2004-05; former Premier League players Youssef Chippo and Alain Goma; and journeyman striker Alan Waddle, cousin of England legend Chris, who had a brief spell here in 1986.

The site has training facilities and a gym. There is table football in the corridors. There is also a canteen with plastic chairs and garish wallpaper with a big screen which may soon be used for tactical instructions.

The facility is equipped with table football

The big screen in the canteen

It is all very pleasant, but not luxurious, and will be a far cry from the facilities at Premier League clubs, although things may look very different now compared to in summer when there was still building work being done.

Qatar is just 100 miles from top to bottom, making it by far the smallest country ever to host a World Cup.

The vast majority of the population lives in the capital Doha, with seven of the eight stadiums accessible on the Doha Metro system. The eighth, Al Bayt, is just a 25-minute drive from the nearest Metro stop.

All but two of the World Cup teams will be based in and around Doha.

An exception to the Doha cluster is Germany. The 2014 winners are heading to the Zulal Wellness Resort on the country’s northern tip, an 80-minute drive north of the capital.

Belgium were initially envious about their European rival’s training camp, figuring it would be better to travel a bit further for each match for the benefit of a combined hotel and training base.

Roberto Martinez’s side eventually found another option at the Hilton Salwa in the country’s south west region, a short distance from Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, a country that has also qualified for the tournament.

The bases were allocated according to a first-come-first-served preference system, and each training base and hotel had to be approved by FIFA’s independent monitoring service.

Teams were asked to put in first, second and third options, and whoever asks for the first option first and qualified quickest got allocated their pick.

This does not rule out last-minute chaos — in 2018, Brazil changed their minds a week before. It did not help them, crashing out 2-1 to Belgium in the quarter-finals, four years on from the humiliating 7-1 home defeat to Germany in the semi-final.

Every federation has a different thought process — at it cost, proximity to the city versus space, or even superstition — some nations won’t state their preferred base before they qualify in case they “jinx” it.

Getting away from the hustle and bustle of central Doha is appealing to some.

That’s very much the case for England’s team hotel, the Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli, on the shore of the Persian Gulf, a short drive from the stadium at which they will train.

When The Athletic visits, we are welcomed inside by staff and can take photos despite turning up unannounced.

The place is luxurious with separate low-rise lodges giving players lots of space to relax in between training sessions and matches.

England’s luxurious World Cup hotel

There are wellness rooms, a well-equipped gym, and the hotel opens straight onto a glorious sandy beach. Fans hoping to share breakfast with Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling will be disappointed — rooms have been unavailable to book for months.

The beach just outside England’s World Cup hotel

This is a “dry” hotel. The topic of alcohol has been endlessly debated in the run-up to the tournament, with many restrictions governing its sale in Qatar.

Those who want a drink will not find it impossible but things will be different to other tournaments. Alcohol is readily available in hotel bars but not served outside them, for example in restaurants or at the airport. There will be a fan zone in central Bidda Park where alcohol will be served, though at limited times.

Inside England’s team hotel for the World Cup

Even in this relaxed, glamorous setting, it is hard to escape the big questions hanging over this World Cup — an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year found security guards working in Doha who had paid extortionate recruitment fees and were working 12-hour shifts for just £1 ($1.18) an hour.

A half-hour drive to the north on the other side of the Doha suburbs is another stadium; this one somewhat larger but looking fairly similar from the outside to the one where England will train.

With the SUVs parking up to get drive-through iced coffee, the wide freeways stretching out into the desert and the suffocating summer heat, the western outskirts of Doha feel a little like the USA’s dusty South West.

If you squint and ignore the mosques, as well as the signs in Arabic as well as English, you could be in Arizona.

The Thani bin Jassim Stadium is where the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) will train before taking on Wales, England and Iran in Group B.

The Thani bin Jassim Stadium, USMNT’s training base

The stadium is usually home to Al-Gharafa, another Qatar Stars League team with an illustrious past, winning seven league titles, though not since 2010. Famous names to have played for the club include 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly, Netherlands star Wesley Sneijder and Costa Rica legend Paulo Wanchope. Current players include Gabriel Pires, on loan from Benfica, and Jonathan Kodjia, formerly of Aston Villa and Bristol City.

The stadium will presumably be heavily guarded when the USMNT arrive, but in July it is easy to walk off the street, uninvited and unannounced, and look around the stadium and its buildings.

Although the Middle East is in constant turmoil, Qatar is a generally safe country and the US military has its biggest regional military presence at the huge Al Udeid Air Base just 30 minutes from the stadium.

There is an indoor sports center on the same site and facilities include a big gym (above), offices and rest areas. There’s also a tactics board with rows of chairs from which players can listen to coach Gregg Berhalter’s instructions. With swish marble floors and lots of space inside, the surroundings are notably grander than those at Al Wakrah, though the medical room was in need of some work back in July.

The medical room at the stadium was incomplete back when The Athletic visited in July

Just to the north of Doha is Lusail, a “planned city” mapped out and built over the last two decades, with a spectacular skyline befitting of a science-fiction film.

The stop before Lusail on the gleaming Doha Metro is Qatar University.

Visiting at the height of summer there is almost nobody here and the car parks sit empty beneath elevated train tracks heading back towards Doha as well as towards the new Lusail Stadium.

The university is huge and the facilities are new and shiny, although this time a security guard does not let The Athletic freely wander around the indoor facilities.

This eerie site will soon be playing host to arguably the world’s greatest-ever footballer, as an Argentina side captained by Lionel Messi will be based here for the tournament. Two other sides expected to challenge at the business end of the tournament, Spain and the Netherlands, will also be based here, but training on different pitches.

The complex is vast so there will be space for all three to train without getting in each other’s way or overhearing tactical instructions.

One of the training pitches at the Qatar University

These places will all likely be under high security during the tournament itself to keep curious fans from disturbing their heroes preparing for some of the biggest moments of their lives.

It is hard to predict yet which stadium, beachfront hotel or university campus will become known to audiences around the world.

But when hundreds of the world’s best footballers squeeze into this medium-sized city, we are sure to see some drama backstage at the training facilities as well as on the pitch.

(Top photo: Simon Holmes/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


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