IMAGE: The first FIFA World Cup in a Muslim country makes them happy. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters
As noon approached, muezzins across Qatar called Muslim soccer players, fans and officials to the first Friday prayers of the first World Cup to take place in a Muslim country.
At the Ibrahim al-Khalil Mosque in Doha’s West Bay, with its towering minaret and carved wooden doors, they gathered for the weekly congregational prayer that many Muslims believe is obligatory.
Among the faithful were fans from Tunisia, Oman and India, a uniformed FIFA official, kids dressed in French soccer kits and hundreds of men and women from nearby hotels and tower blocks.
Unusually for soccer, Muslim fans say Qatar’s World Cup has accommodated them like never before, with stadium prayer rooms, concessions selling halal food and no beer-swilling supporters to contend with in the stands following a stadium alcohol ban.
“I came to an Islamic country to attend Friday prayer. This is what makes me happy at this competition,” said Yousef al Idbari, a visiting fan from Morocco.
Like all the other worshippers, al Idbari removed his shoes and filed into the mosque’s main prayer hall.
Islam has featured throughout the first week of the tournament with a recitation of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, at the opening ceremony and English translations of sayings and teachings of the prophet Mohammad posted around Doha.
However, while Muslims attending games in Qatar may be enjoying a better fan experience than they have had before, it is not clear whether this World Cup will change things for them in the long run.
“Early indications are that there is a conflation between criticism of Qatar and actual hostility towards Muslims,” said Imran Awan, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University who is examining patterns of Islamophobia both on and offline to look for signs of a change in public opinion.
Qatar has faced criticism from some countries playing in the 32-team tournament over its rights record on migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community.
For now, Muslim fans are just enjoying an event that caters to their needs.
Ridwaan Goolam Hoosen, an avid South African soccer fan, is used to having to leave the grounds to find a prayer space, including at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“You go out and you miss a team goal or you miss someone getting sent off,” he told Reuters. “It feels as if this World Cup is for me, it works for me, it fits for me. This is the first of its kind like this,” Goolam Hoosen said.