DOHA, Qatar — The glass door to the La Plage pool deck slides open, I walk through, and it’s as if I’ve been transported into another world — one that is thousands of miles away from Qatar.
It’s a little after noon, and alcohol is flowing in all manner of ways. People are sprawled out on lounge chairs, sleeping off hangovers or perhaps just the game from the previous evening. And there’s more exposed skin sizzling in the sun than you’d otherwise see in months here in Doha — enough to keep a dermatologist employed for the rest of their life.
Yes, this is in Qatar — the small, conservative Muslim country hosting the World Cup — but this is not in one of its hotels or public spaces. Rather, it’s the cruise ship MSC World Europa, which is docked at Doha’s newly revamped cruise ship terminal. You don’t have to book a room to enjoy the ship’s amenities, either. For a cool $50, you can get a day pass, but for those staying overnight, it’s one of those places where the party never stops.
“This place is like Vegas on water, man. It’s been incredible,” said Marc Laszcz, 28, a real estate agent from San Diego. “We’ve been here about a week now and just living it up. It’s like you’re walking onto the Strip, you walk into one of the Bellagios. This place never sleeps. It goes 24 hours.
“The Welsh and the British people there are up at the bar, just keeping it going. And then they fall asleep, they wake up, they keep going, fall asleep around 4 or 5 in the morning. We’re up by 7 because the sun’s up and it’s just nonstop. It’s a great time. And we’re here to cheer on the boys in the red, white and blue.”
How a cruise ship becomes a World Cup hotel stand-in
When the Qatar Supreme Committee began wondering how it would accommodate upward of 1 million visitors for the 2022 World Cup, hotel space was a big concern in Qatar, a country that could only accommodate a small fraction of that. So, organizers hit upon a novel way to alleviate some of the strain on the city’s hotel industry: turning cruise ships into floating hotels.
The MSC World Europa — one of three MSC ocean liners brought in — fits the bill as a hotel and then some. The ship is gargantuan at over 1,000 feet long and 223 feet high with 22 decks. It accommodates 6,700 passengers, though according to one customer service rep on board, the ship is only about half-full at present. The ship is fully staffed, however, and they’re practically falling all over each other to help — one staff member even insisted on carrying my drink for me as I moved from one table to another. And most pleasing to the Supreme Committee, the ship is fueled by liquid natural gas (LNG), Qatar’s cash crop.
So how is life on the cruise ship?
“It’s been awesome,” says Kody, 44, who hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, and is taking in the World Cup with her husband, Dean, and their two sons. “It’s Groundhog Day to some extent, buffet-wise, but in terms of the spirit, nothing compares. It’s awesome to have everybody from a whole bunch of different countries gathered together.”
For Cayhan Movaghari and Alex De Thier, both 25 and from the Washington, D.C., area, that opportunity to mingle with a veritable United Nations of fans at close quarters has been the best part of being on the boat. “We’ve gotten to have breakfast with folks from Australia,” Movaghari says. “We’ve had drinks with folks from Mexico, from Portugal. There’s some amazing Iranian people on the boat, which has been wonderful. So it’s just been, overall, fantastic.”
You never know who you might run into, either.
Nawaz Hussain is attending the World Cup with his brother Mohammed Ali — pronounced “like the boxer,” Ali says with a smile — and his nephew Rian Hossein. He proudly displays a picture he took on the boat with Jorge Burruchaga, scorer of the winning goal for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup final against Germany. All three hail from Chennai, India, and are here to soak up every minute of this World Cup.
Ali, 58, marvels at the play of the Arab countries so far in the tournament, while Hussain, 30, praised Canada, despite the Reds’ defeat to Croatia earlier in the evening. “They played well above expectations,” he said. The idea of using a cruise ship as a hotel left an impression on him as well. “Generally they build infrastructure and then it goes to waste after the tournament,” Ali says. “So the whole idea of bringing cruise ships, accommodating thousands of people, and then sending them back when it’s not needed, I think that is brilliant.”
One place where the party isn’t going on at all is the ship’s casino, which is lit up but completely empty as I walk through, save for two lonely bartenders with no one to serve. It seems straight out of “The Shining,” and I half expect one to ask me, “How are things going, Mr. Torrance?” Instead, one explains that since the ship isn’t in international waters, the casino is shut down. The shakedown of that part of the ship will have to wait until the first official trip to sea, which is set for later in December.
As odd as the idea of staying on a cruise ship for the World Cup sounds, it has its merits beyond just a bed to sleep in. To many visitors, Qatar was a huge unknown, including just how strictly the rules on public consumption of alcohol would be enforced. When the Supreme Committee decided only two days before the tournament that there would be no alcohol sold at stadiums, that clinched it for some. Yet the ship has just about everything one could need.
Both Brian Trott and Mike Andrews had been on the boat for only a few hours, having previously stayed at one of Doha’s hotels. But already they were feeling at home. “We were happy with our choice once they banned alcohol around the stadiums,” Andrews said.
The MSC World Europa even boasts its own brewery on board that will “serve a range of ‘Oceanic’ beers made with desalinated sea water,” according to marketing materials, for those itching to get the full “at sea” experience.
There’s also a security aspect that attracted some tourists to stay aboard this floating hotel, though it appears Doha has lived up to its reputation for being an incredibly safe city.
“When we booked this a couple of years ago, we thought it would be worthwhile, especially with [Qatar’s] approach to drinking. It’s a safer option,” said Mark, a 38-year-old designer of security systems from outside London. “If we do a cruise ship, they can have loads of bars, they’ll have loads of restaurants. If everything goes horrendously wrong outside of [this ship], we’ll have that safe space to go back to.
“You don’t have to spend too much time in the sun if you don’t want to. But it’s still weird to have it be so warm in November, especially when you’re talking to friends back home and they’re telling you how bad the weather is.”
The idea of having so many fans in close quarters might create some tension, especially with the “liquid courage” so readily available. But the experience of guests who spoke to ESPN for this story indicate this has been kept to a minimum.
Victor Suarez, 32, who owns an escape room company in Mexico City, is enjoying lunch at the ship’s sushi restaurant, Kaito, with his companion, 32-year-old Mabel Guerra, a fashion designer. “This is breakfast,” she said. He remarks how much of the banter has been in good fun, especially at the bar, Master of the Seas, earlier in the trip. “Everybody was wearing their jerseys from their country, and they started singing their chants,” he said. “The Brazilians started fighting the Argentinians. Not in a bad way, just with their singing. It was pretty fun.”
The price of staying on a cruise ship at a World Cup
The ship works even for people who aren’t into the nightlife — after all, this boat is serving as a hotel first.
Later in the evening, I run into Joao Silva and Roberta Carmo, who hail from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (“The city of the 7-1,” Silva said, in reference to Brazil’s defeat to Germany by that score in the 2014 World Cup semifinal.) They call the experience of staying on a cruise ship a “nice surprise” given its close proximity to the city and attractions, though there is one problem.
“There’s no vegan restaurant,” he says. “We are eating in the city.”
Kids are welcome on the boat too. Steven van Hoof, a 36-year-old native of Antwerp, Belgium, who now lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is staying on the boat with his 12-year-old son.
“My wife doesn’t like soccer, and my son’s turning 12. I promised him we’re going to do one of these boys trips,” he said. “It ended up from three days to three weeks now. So we’re staying for the whole lot, watching 23 games, which is the only benefit now having the World Cup in Qatar. It’s like all the stadiums, you can run from one to another.”
The cost of the trip varies widely, but it is still on the pricier side. For the final week of the World Cup, rooms are ranging from $347 a night to more than $2,500. The interior rooms leave barely enough space for luggage.
“It is a box,” Mark from London said about his room.
Then there’s the cost of food and beverage. Some deep, intense research conducted by this reporter can confirm that a draft beer does indeed run about $15.
“It’s expensive,” said Garrett Jones, a 28-year-old accountant from Boise, Idaho. “The accommodations itself actually weren’t bad, but the food has been way more expensive on the boat compared to if you go to Souq Waqif. The food’s a lot cheaper there.” (Souq Waqif is Doha’s oldest souq street market and a popular attraction in the city.)
Van Hoof added: “The boat hurts, but so would any other holiday. I’m thinking the World Cup is only once every four years and my son only turns 12 once, so there you go. Just took it on the chin.”
Mark Ogden shares his experience of watching the opening game of the World Cup from a bar in Doha.
On this night at the Master of the Seas, the Croatia fans are enjoying the cool of the evening that comes with a 4-1 in over Canada, though a German couple are anxiously watching the final moments of Germany’s match against Spain. As I sidle up to the bar, I strike up a conversation with a man in a Luka Modric jersey, though it turns out he’s not from Zagreb or Split, but Boise, Idaho.
He introduces me to Kyle DePinna, a 34-year-old artist from Portland, Oregon. DePinna has been getting some gentle grief all day — he had tickets to the Germany-Spain game, but after six consecutive days of going to games, he hit something of a wall and gave up his tickets. A jet skiing excursion removed any sense of him missing out.
“It was the best time of my life,” he said. “We thought we were going to be late, and ended up getting there right at sunset. So we rode like 30 minutes as the sun was setting. I got, like, amazing pictures and videos.”
When the whistle blows to end the Germany-Spain game, the deck at the La Plage pool, where people had been watching on a massive screen largely empties. A few people stick around to dance to “Oye Como Va,” but the others have retreated to the ship’s interior to eat or continue drinking. The party goes on.