After climbing the steps of the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium to gaze upon the immaculate green turf, the prospect of playing football is decidedly unappealing. The sweltering heat makes it uncomfortable to be outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes in 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 disappearing into the desert mist and the call to prayer ringing out as the clock strikes 4pm, the backdrop is a reminder that this World Cup will be very different.
The competition in Qatar has been surrounded by controversy and human rights concerns, such as The Athlete he explored when he visited the country’s eight stadiums in preparation for the world coming to town.
And having visited the courts, The Athlete thought it was also worth taking a tour of some of the World Cup training grounds for more information on what the players might experience when they arrive.
Never The Athlete visits in July, an empty car park surrounds the stadium where England will train. There are many food and drink outlets that are open even though there are not many people.
They cater to drive-thru visitors who hop into their air-conditioned vehicles to grab a sandwich or an iced coffee in the heat of the day. A coffee shop is staffed by Filipino workers Cecile and Kane.
Kane, of course, shares her name with England captain Harry, who will soon be training on the pitch directly behind her bench. At first, she says she hasn’t heard of him, though after being shown a photo, she unconvincingly suggests that he might look familiar. She is not a big football fan, she prefers basketball, like many of her compatriots.
The two women have no idea the England team is coming here, but they attended a match recently at one of Qatar’s new stadiums after tournament organizers gave locals free tickets to try out the facilities.
Qataris are a small minority of the population of a country that has imported labor on a massive scale in recent years to prepare for the World Cup. As impressive as the transformation is, it comes 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 usually hosts Al Wakrah SC, who came third in last season’s Qatar Stars League and won it in 1999 and 2001.
Few of the current squad players will be familiar from 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 spent a brief spell here in 1986.
The venue has training facilities and a gym. There is table football in the corridors. There is also a canteen with plastic chairs and elaborate wallpaper with a large screen that may soon be used for tactical instructions.
It’s all very pleasant, but not luxurious, and will be a far cry from the facilities of Premier League clubs, although things may look very different now compared to the summer when building work was still taking place.
Qatar is just 100 miles from top to bottom, making it by far the smallest country to ever host a World Cup.
The vast majority of the population lives in the capital city of Doha, with seven of the eight stations accessible by the Doha Metro system. The eighth, Al Bayt, is only a 25-minute drive from the nearest metro stop.
All but two World Cup teams will be based in and around Doha.
An exception in the Doha cluster is Germany. The 2014 winners head to the Zulal Wellness Resort in the northern tip of the country, an 80-minute drive north of the capital.
Belgium were initially jealous of their European rival’s training camp, believing it would be better to travel a bit more for each match in favor of a combined hotel and training base.
Roberto Martinez’s side eventually found another option at the Hilton Salwa in the south-west region of the country, a short distance from Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia, a country that has also qualified for the tournament.
Bases were allocated according to a priority preference system and each training base and hotel had to be approved by FIFA’s independent monitoring agency.
The teams were asked to put in their first, second and third picks, and whoever called for the first pick first and qualified the fastest got their pick.
That doesn’t rule out last-minute chaos – in 2018, Brazil changed their minds a week before. It didn’t help them, being crushed 2-1 by Belgium in the quarter-finals, four years after a humiliating 7-1 home defeat by Germany in the semi-final.
Each federation has a different thought process – whether it’s cost, proximity to the city versus space, or even superstition – some nations won’t declare their preferred base before qualifying in case they “psych” it.
Getting away from the hustle and bustle of central Doha appeals to some.
This is very much the case for England’s team hotel, the Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli, on the Persian Gulf coast, a short drive from the stadium where they will train.
Never The Athlete visits, we are welcomed by the staff and can take photos despite being unannounced.
The venue is luxurious with separate low-rise lounges giving players plenty of room to relax between training sessions and matches.
There are wellness rooms, a well-equipped gym and the hotel opens directly onto a lovely sandy beach. Fans hoping to share breakfast with Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling will be disappointed – the rooms have not been available to book for months.
This is a “dry” hotel. The issue 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 won’t find it impossible, but things will be different from other tournaments. Alcohol is readily available in hotel bars, but not served outside, for example in restaurants or at the airport. There will be a fan zone in Bidda Central Park where alcohol will be served, albeit on a limited time basis.
Even in this relaxed, glamorous environment, it’s 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 paid extortionate recruitment fees and working 12-hour shifts shifts for as little as £1 ($1.18) an hour.
A half hour’s drive north, on the other side of the Doha suburbs is another stadium. this is somewhat larger, but looks quite similar from the outside to the one where England will train.
With SUVs parked for iced coffee, long highways stretching across the desert and sweltering summer heat, Doha’s western suburbs feel a bit like the dusty US Southwest.
If you squint and ignore the mosques and the signs in Arabic as well as English, you could be in Arizona.
Thani bin Jassim Stadium is where the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) will train before facing Wales, England and Iran in Group B.
The stadium is usually home to Al-Gharafa, another Qatar Stars League side with a illustrious past, winning seven league titles, although not since 2010. Famous names who have played for the club include 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly , Dutch star Wesley Sneijder and Costa Rican legend Paulo Wanchope. Current players include Gabriel Pires, on loan from Benfica, and Jonathan Kodzia, formerly of Aston Villa and Bristol City.
The stadium will probably be heavily guarded when the USMNT arrives, but in July it’s easy to pop 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 largest regional military presence at the massive Al Udeid Air Base, just 30 minutes from the stadium.
There is an indoor sports center on the same site and facilities include a large gym (above), offices and rest areas. There is also a tactical board with rows of chairs from which players can listen to coach Gregg Berhalter’s instructions. With soft marble floors and plenty of space inside, the environment is much larger than that of Al Wakrah, although the medical room needed some work in July.
Just north of Doha lies Lusail, a “planned city” designed and built over the past two decades, with an impressive skyline fit for a science fiction film.
The stop before Lusail on the glittering Doha Metro is Qatar University.
Visiting in the height of summer, there is hardly anyone here and the car parks are empty under the elevated train tracks heading towards Doha as well as the new Lusail Stadium.
The university is huge and the facilities are new and shiny, although this time a security guard won’t let it The Athlete roam freely in the indoor facilities.
This eerie site will soon play host to arguably the best footballer in the world as an Argentina team captained by Lionel Messi will be based here for the tournament. Two other teams expected to face at the professional end of the tournament, Spain and the Netherlands, will also be based here, but will train at different grounds.
The complex is huge, so there will be room for all three to train without bumping into each other or eavesdropping on tactical instructions.
These places will likely be under high security during the tournament itself to prevent curious fans from disturbing their heroes as they prepare for some of the biggest moments of their lives.
It is still difficult to predict which stadium, seaside hotel or university campus will become known to the public around the world.
But when hundreds of the world’s best footballers cram into this mid-sized city, there’s bound to be some behind-the-scenes drama in the training facilities as well as on the pitch.
(Top photo: Simon Holmes/NurPhoto via Getty Images)