AL KHOR, Qatar – With its haughty aura of exclusivity, the red-carpeted and velvet-covered VIP entrance to Al Bayt Stadium seems designed to inspire maximum respect and envy. As regular fans walked through their doors at the England-USA game on Friday, VIP guests were greeted by an exotic figure dressed as some sort of antelope, covered from head to toe in shimmering gold squares.
(When asked for his identity, the character, who wasn’t supposed to speak, muttered under his breath, “Oryx.”)
But this is the Qatar World Cup, where there is even better than the VIP entry: the VVIP entry.
Not that it’s available, or even fully visible, to you. Flanked by barriers and cut off from the normal road system, the VVIP entrance to Al Bayt is a wide artery on which the most important fans, starting with the Emir of Qatar, who arrives by helicopter with his entourage then jumps into a Mercedes, are taken directly to their special enclave in the stadium. This way they are never required to interact with, or even occupy the same general space as regular fans.
Every sports venue has its system of tiered luxury – the owner’s box, business lounges, special-access elevators, ridiculously expensive seats, even more ridiculously expensive seats. But at this year’s World Cup, the convergence of two entities awash in luxuries and rights – Qatar, where all power and privileges flow from the Emir, and FIFA, football’s world governing body , with its vast network of wealth and patronage – provides a bracing reminder that there is always a more rarefied degree of exclusive.
The main difference between luxury seats and non-luxury seats in this year’s World Cup is alcohol. In a shock to fans (and to Budweiser, the tournament’s official beer since 1986), Qatar backtracked and decreed just before the start of the event that the sale of alcoholic beer (in effect, alcohol of any kind) would be prohibited in and around the stadiums.
A short guide to the 2022 World Cup
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But that didn’t affect the stream of free beer – or free champagne, scotch, gin, whiskey, wine and other drinks – available to non-regular fans in the VIP, VVIP and other areas. welcome. The rules, it seemed, did not apply to them.
In a $3,000-per-seat hospitality lounge at Al Bayt during the USA’s game against England, for example, the bar menu included Taittinger champagne, Chivas Regal 12-year-old whiskey, Martell VSOP brandy. and Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila.
“If you want to drink, you can’t drink in stadiums,” said Keemya Najmi, who came from Los Angeles with her family. “So it’s just a lot more comfortable.”
Also adding to the comfort: a dedicated check-in counter staffed by smiling hosts handing out special passes and small gift bags; a coriander-infused welcome drink that was a shock to the system; tables laden with nuts, dates, popcorn and potato chips; an endlessly sumptuous buffet including dishes like slow-cooked shoulder of lamb and marinated tuna steak, as well as a carving station and a selection of six desserts; and a band that sings cross-cultural fan favorites like “Sweet Caroline.”
According to Match Hospitality, a FIFA partner that runs these sections, there are five levels of ‘hospitality’ at stadiums, starting with $950 stadium seats that serve street food, as well as wine. and beer. At the highest end are private suites that cost around $5,000 per person and offer six-course meals prepared by a private chef, cocktails served by sommeliers and mixologists, and the promise of celebrity “appearances.” anonymous.
The most exclusive suite is the Pearl Lounge, just above the center line of Lusail Stadium, which offers each guest an “exceptional memorial gift”. There is also, according to someone who has been there, a suite at Al Bayt which for some reason has a Murphy bed and a bathroom with a shower.
This World Cup brought in around $800 million in hospitality seat sales – a sports industry record, a Match Hospitality spokesperson said. But many of those guests paid for the privilege, unlike, it seems, VIPs (or VVIPs).
The taxonomy of VIP-ness has been the subject of debate among those on the other side of the velvet ropes. There are different theories. “The VIPs are the sponsors,” said a woman who, it must be said, works for one of the sponsors herself and was speaking from a hospitality lounge, not a VIP suite. (She is not authorized to speak to the press and has asked that her name not be used.)
No, said a Saudi journalist in the stands who also asked that his name not be used. “VIPs usually come from corporate and banking sectors,” he said. “The VVIPs are the Emir and the people around him – his family, his father – and foreign officials.” These would likely include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who sat close to the Emir during the opening match, as well as Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were spotted in a luxury box during the American game.
There is consensus that senior FIFA officials like President Gianni Infantino are VVIPs, but other FIFA and FIFA staff are only VIPs.
Meanwhile, a Qatari involved in organizing the logistics of the tournament, who did not want to speak officially because he is not authorized to do so, said there was sometimes an overabundance of VIPs during the Qatari events. In this case, so many people end up being propelled to VVIP status that the organizers are forced to create an entirely new level: VVVIP, the human equivalent of a seven-star hotel.
With all this VIP inflation, is it any wonder visitors suffer from status anxiety?
On a recent morning at the luxurious Fairmont Doha, a tournament magnet for former football stars, wealthy businessmen and FIFA big names, officials were busy ahead of the first match of the daytime. A buff security guard was on hand to fend off unwanted visitors.
A member of the FIFA Council, the organization’s governing body, paced the marble floors of the lobby, a cell phone clinging to his right cheek. She would tell the person on the other end of the line how many (free) tickets she needed for each game. Another FIFA official was handing out already purchased tickets to hotel guests.
It was nearing the time to leave for the stadium and two women in navy blue blazers appeared, holding paddles urging guests to follow them – one for “FIFA VIPs”, the other for “La VVIPs”. Fifa”.
A few minutes later, a well-dressed couple received their tickets. The woman peeked inside. The news was bad. “VIP only,” she whispered.
In the driveway, the VVIPs were directed to a fleet of black SUVs that would take them to the game. The VIPs had to take a bus.
Tariq Panja contributed report.