How Wales fans are making Doha's 'Floor of Fun' feel like home

DOHA, Qatar -- Up a short spiral staircase at the salubrious Intercontinental Hotel in Doha's plush West Bay area lie three restaurants that at first glance have little in common: The Curry House (Indian cuisine), Hive Lounge (Australian meats) and Prime (a steakhouse.) Yet these rooms, connected by a communal hallway, have become the social hub for Wales' first World Cup appearance for 64 years, and on Tuesday perhaps the drama of their final Group B game will be felt more viscerally here than anywhere outside the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium around 20km away where Robert Page's side will face England. Welcome to the "Floor of Fun."

The three venues are all run by Rhodri Williams, a Welshman born in Barry whose career as a sports television anchor took him to Qatar, which he made his permanent home 10 years ago. The 54-year-old was a public figure in Wales having worked for Sky, Setanta Sports and ITV -- predominantly on rugby -- while also running several bars in Cardiff, including the Cameo Club, a private club 10 minutes from the Millennium Stadium.

A day after Wales sealed qualification for this World Cup by beating Ukraine 1-0 in a June playoff, a mutual friend put travel organiser Leigh James in touch with Williams. James helps to run "Gol Cymru," a fan charity that aims to help underprivileged children in the areas where Wales play and organises experiences for travelling supporters.

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In Qatar, concerns were different to normal. The pull of a first World Cup in more than six decades was offset by widely reported scepticism over the Gulf state's human rights record, in particular their treatment of LGBTQIA+ people. But also, for the Welsh and the English especially, there was another important consideration: the restriction on alcohol consumption in the Muslim country.

"All the information about Qatar was you can't get a beer, you can't get a glass of wine," James told ESPN. "People were wary of it. They wanted somewhere to go that was secure. We haven't been in the World Cup for 64 years, we take a lot of away fans, but this was something different.

"We sold tickets on a portal. The tickets were free, but they had to buy a package at the hotel. I put 600 live. They were gone in 10 minutes, and I got inundated by people. We spoke to the general manager and we got another 600 places, then additionally another 600 people."

The packages started at £79 for five bottles of beer. Almost all the fans coming over to Qatar had match tickets, so the party would start early in the day and then run late into the night, a wraparound haven for Wales supporters seeking a home from home.

'The Curry House' and waiting area decked out with a World Cup flavour. Photo credit: James Olley.

The floor was packed for Wales' opening 1-1 draw with the United States and, according to Williams, 1,700 crammed in for Friday's 2-0 defeat to Iran -- a chastening climax in which Page's side were beaten by two stoppage-time goals after goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey's red card. On the night ESPN visited the restaurants -- last Saturday as France played Denmark -- fans wearing shirts of around 10 countries were happily mingling.

The Curry House is a rare thing in Doha: a place where you can get some north Indian cuisine with a draught beer to wash it down. A clash of vibrant colours adorns the walls; multiple booths are set up with private screens; and cartoon artwork adorns the walls.

Famous faces are not uncommon, either. Former England internationals, now pundits, Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand visited the stylish Prime -- opened in early November -- at the start of the tournament, and former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon is another prominent football figure known to be partial to the food on offer.

One Welsh fan in his 30s, who chose not to be named, told ESPN: "I've been here for the first two Wales games, and it was like being in Cardiff. The emotion in here was incredible. People call it the 'Floor of Fun,' and I can see why."

The fan base has been split to some extent by external circumstances. An estimated 2,500 Wales supporters opted to travel to Tenerife rather than Qatar, given the costs and concerns about the experience that awaited them in Doha. Said James of the split, "What you'll find with the Welsh fans, it is not cheap to come here, so some people will struggle to come, and from the demographic of the people who are here, they are of a more mature age. So some people have gone to Tenerife and some of the scenes down there, that's not our culture."

The Urdd Youth Choir, comprising more than 30 young men and women from the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales, visited Qatar with the help of the British Embassy and the Arts Council of Wales. After visiting expat children in some of Doha's schools to sing and teach a little Welsh, the choir performed at the "Floor of Fun" inside the Intercontinental Hotel on matchday, a particularly galvanising performance in the wake of Friday's defeat to Iran.

"They performed here voluntarily by the way, I didn't have to tell them," Williams told ESPN. "It's a Welsh thing. Once they started singing, it brought a smile to everybody's face. Everybody came in dour because the Welsh had lost, but a couple of drinks and a singsong, all is well again."

They were not the only musical acts in attendance. The Barry Horns, an 11-piece brass band named after the former Wales midfielder, Barry Horne, performed at the parties held for the first two games. Folk singer Dafydd Iwan gave a rendition of his 1983 song "Yma o Hyd," translated as "Still Here," which brought the house down before the US match. Iwan sang it on the pitch at Cardiff City Stadium before the playoff wins against Austria and Ukraine earlier this year, and thanks to burgeoning popularity, it was chosen as Wales' official anthem for the World Cup. The chorus of "We are still here, we are still here, in spite of everyone and everything" possesses an extra poignancy given the reservations many had about coming to Qatar in the first place.

"I think because of such negative press that Qatar had globally, many people came here apprehensive, worried, nervous, scared, unsure about their decision to come based on some people being ill-informed on a lot of things," Williams said. "Based on that, you have a lot of people arriving who are all slightly outside of their comfort zone. We're all in the same boat, and what I've enjoyed more than anything is people realising what sort of country Qatar is, what the people are like and what it can do to put on a show. I'm not the great defender of Qatar, it is not my duty. I'm an expat who lives and works here, gets on with daily life and enjoys myself."

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There have been a few hitches. Wales Online reported that the Intercontinental Hotel ran out of beer before the US game, something Williams categorically denies. "We didn't run out of booze, but we have flash coolers here in place of a cellar," he said. "They are good for regular use but not for 1,700 Welsh. We had to replace them all and got upgraded."

A prematch party before Friday's Iran game had to be cancelled. Fans had hoped to gather at 11 a.m., in part to get a drink before the 1 p.m. kickoff, but Qatari authorities imposed a last-minute ban on the sale of alcohol before noon on a Friday because it is a holy day.

Staff have been hired and trained at short notice, suddenly thrown into dealing with throngs of thirsty people all at once. And despite the package deals, it still isn't cheap: on matchdays, anyone who turns up at the The Curry House can buy three-hour access to an "enhanced beverage package" and food for 599 Qatari riyals (approximately £136.)

"I went to the Munich beer festival this year," Williams said. "Six steins cost €80, cash only. I was spending €500 a day. What is expensive? You go into central London these days, you're into similar amounts. You come to my hometown of Barry, maybe not. In Hive, I've provided five beers for 179 riyals [which is about] £40. I'm giving them five bottles of beer. For an extra £4, I'm giving them onion rings and chips."

Williams insists there "has not been a single problem" related to drunken behaviour, and the consensus is that those who have spent such vast sums to follow Wales to Qatar have focused on getting the most out of the experience.

"The key thing I would like to stress -- in Qatar, setting up these sort of things is not easy," James added. "England did not organise anything like this. Many other countries didn't. We went out there and organised it because we knew what they wanted. It has been a difficult gig, but we got there."