LUSAIL, Qatar — You thought the final of the Qatar 2022 World Cup was in Doha, right? Doha, the capital city of the tiny Gulf state, has been the central hub of this tournament, but it isn’t staging the final between France and Argentina on Sunday. That honour has been bestowed upon Lusail, Qatar’s second-biggest city, which is 14 miles north of Doha. It is unlike any city that has ever previously hosted a World Cup final or likely ever will.
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Qatar has dubbed Lusail the “City of the Future,” but as you walk down Lusail Boulevard, the official theme song of the 2010 World Cup is being piped out of the speakers, which are clearly everywhere, yet impossible to see. “Waka Waka — This Time for Africa,” Shakira sings. Ten minutes later, you hear it again. And then again.
By the time you reach the end of the boulevard, about a 25-minute walk from one end to the other, and stand under a metallic shark sculpture which is suspended from two skyscrapers — yes, that’s right, a shark — the “Waka Waka” ear-worm is now inescapable.
There are dancing fountains shooting from the ground, designed for laughing young children to run through. But there are no kids, just a sprinkling of fans from different nations, walking around to see the desert city for themselves.
Even though the sun is beating down, the heat is oddly manageable because of the constant breeze. Initially, there is a disconcerting chill to it, considering the time and the place, but closer inspection reveals that air is being pumped out of vents in the pavement along the boulevard.
It all feels like a dystopian scene straight out of a Christopher Nolan movie — Interstellar meets Tenet — but it is actually 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in the main thoroughfare in the city that will host the World Cup final at Lusail Iconic Stadium.
Qatar is considering a bid to host the 2036 Olympic Games and has suggested air-conditioned streets to help spectators and marathon runners cope with the summer heat. It sounded ridiculous at first, but the technology is in place in Lusail. The future is happening right now.
It is not unusual for the final to be staged away from the capital. Pasadena (1994), Yokohama (2002) and Rio de Janeiro (2014) have all hosted football’s biggest game and the 2026 final in the United States is expected to be played in Dallas, Los Angeles or New Jersey rather than Washington D.C.
Yet all of those cities are, well, cities. They are living, breathing, functioning areas of population, with communities, infrastructure and populations mostly in the millions. Lusail can claim to have none of those things. But it’s the city of the future, so the expectation is that all of the above will develop in time.
Right now, though, it is unquestionably the strangest, weirdest city to ever stage a World Cup final. But when you consider that Qatar itself has proven to be an unusual host nation, Lusail is perhaps an appropriate place for everything to come an end.
A World Cup where little has been what it has seemed, brought to a conclusion in a city that doesn’t yet really exist.
ESPN attempted to contact the central government team responsible for the Lusail project for further information on the city, but did not receive a reply. Questions such as how many people actually live there, when will it be finished and the story behind the shark sculpture remain unanswered, but throughout the World Cup, every match broadcast has been punctuated by a television commercial — before, at half-time, and after the final whistle — advertising the dream lifestyle of the “City of the Future.” It features a young child who talks of scoring the perfect goal in the city “designed by [TikTok video star] Khaby, and Neymar’s there,” — cue Neymar turning around and saying, “No problem,” before scoring into an empty goal.
The reality of Lusail is that it was never expected to be completed in time for the World Cup. The stadium, which opened in September, was always the priority for the hosts. The stunning architecture — it was designed by Populous, the architects who also created the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London — ensures that it will be a worthy venue for the World Cup final.
Lusail City is eventually expected to have a population of 250,000 — professionals living in the Lusail Towers, the four skyscrapers at the end of Lusail Boulevard, with the kind of disposable income that will allow them to cover their rent and shop at the adjacent Place Vendome Mall, which can be best described as an awkward combination of the neo-classical Parisian square from which it takes its name, and the Venetian canals — not of the real thing in Venice but of the Las Vegas hotel.
The towers are finished in terms of construction, but the dust on the glass panels suggests they are not ready for habitation. On either side of the boulevard are vast areas of land, many of which have been used as parking lots during the World Cup, and apartment buildings that continue to be built.
Much of it looks like a ghost city — even the streets are numbered rather than named — but the hope in Qatar at least is that they will all eventually be occupied. The aim is for the Lusail Project (you could call it ambitious, but Qatar has the money to be ambitious in everything it does) to ultimately deliver a city to ensure that its stadium and Formula One track are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of daily life rather than appear, as they do now, to be grand projects stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Some will rightly point out that the boulevard does get busier at night, when fans are in the area to attend games at the stadium. There are enough food outlets on the mile long boulevard to cater for 60,000 visitors, but they are deserted during the day, and the question that must be asked is — who will fill the boulevard when all the fans have gone?
Who will they be cooling the streets for, and will the table staff still be outside restaurants, waiting for customers to pass by like tumbleweed?
If you build it, they will come. Perhaps. And Maybe Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappe really will be dancing in the streets of Lusail on Sunday night to the backdrop of “Waka Waka.”