Alcohol may be banned in stadiums in the 2022 World Cup, but the Masters of the Sea pub is one place in Qatar where the drinks are flowing. The pub is on board the MSC World Europa cruise liner, the base for the England support team of wives, girlfriends and family. It is designed to look like a traditional British boozer – dark interiors, wooden staircases and carpets, televisions playing the England matches – and guests are flocking there, according to Sarah*, who is staying on the ship with her family for the next few weeks.
This is where spirits are highest, says Sarah, though she smarts at the label given to the boat by certain media: the “WAG Booze Cruise”. It is the men, she says, who are doing the drinking.
“The women aren’t getting drunk. It’s only certain groups of men from what I’ve seen. There are loads of men on board this cruise; it’s about 70 per cent men, 30 per cent women. And the men are all getting really drunk.”
On one particular evening, Sarah was walking on the boat and found “one [British] guy just splattered on the floor in one of the lifts.”
The atmosphere can be “rowdy”, she says. This is despite prices being high. “It’s about €15 (£13) for a pint, but nobody seems to care. People are clearly quite well off. Or if they aren’t well off, they are spending like something [has] gone wrong.”
There is even one bar available 24 hours a day, though Qatar’s strict anti-gambling laws mean the boat’s on-board casino has remained firmly shut.
The MSC World Europa cruise liner cost a reported £1bn to build. For the duration of the football tournament it will be docked in Doha’s old harbour – about 10 miles from where the England football team are staying – as a base for the extensive support networks who have followed the squad to the Middle East.
Guests include Raheem Sterling’s girlfriend, Paige Milian, Aaron Ramsdale’s fiancée Georgina Irwin, and Tolami Benson, girlfriend of Bukayo Saka.
Before Sarah arrived on 20 November she had never been on a cruise, but had heard rumours about what it would be like – with a looping water slide that stands 11 decks high; a water park; shopping mall; 7,000 other passengers; high-end restaurants and guests getting dressed up for every meal.
“To be honest I thought it was going to be a bit much,” she says, but having planned the trip for months, she was not deterred from attending. “It is so different from what I thought.”
The first thing Sarah noticed when she got on board the ship was the cleanliness: the interiors (including installations of plastic dolphins and whales that light up the ceiling) were sparkling.
And she was taken aback by the sheer scale of everything. “The cruise ship itself is massive. It feels like hardly anyone is on it because it’s so big,” Sarah says.
The liner has more than 5,000 cabins, but the number of passengers appears relatively sparse, with hundreds of empty deck chairs on the upper decks.
“I was worried we would have to rush for a sun lounger in the morning,” Sarash says, adding, “I thought it was going to be like a city but it’s not.”
By contrast, the cabins are surprisingly small, she says. Rooms are priced upwards of £300 a night, reaching £6,000 for the VIP suites.
Each cabin has a double bed, television and ensuite. Some have a balcony. Sarah thought her room would be fancier: “To be honest, they are not fancy at all. They are like general cabins. I was speaking to one footballer’s partner who has kids, and she is in an inner cabin with just this tiny window.”
And – as might be expected for football royalty – security is tight. “They check your stuff whenever you get on or off for matches or if you want to go for a walk around the harbour. You can’t go about the cruise without your security pass. They check it all the time,” she says.
Since their arrival, Sarah and her family have mainly spent their time roller skating and in the luxurious hot tub on the upper deck. But there is one thing she still needs to visit: the mega slide (the existence of which turned out to be more than just rumours).
“My mum was watching one guy get down it the other day, but he kept stopping,” she laughs. “I think the slide is very slow.”
At mealtimes, guests are not short of options: Mexican, Japanese and Italian, coffee shops and steak houses. Sarah and her family chose not to go all-inclusive, something she now regrets.
“The most annoying thing is the weird [food] system. If you’re not all-inclusive, you get breakfast provided for, but then every meal after that is either €50 for lunch, or then €60 for dinner, and you get a few hours in which you get a drink included in that,” she says.
Sarah had expected evening events on board to be a little swankier – she has brought along lots of long summer dresses – but she says it is far more laid back.
“I thought it was going to be very high end but actually it just seems very normal. There are lots of kids having fun in the play areas. Loads of different age groups,” she says.
Largely, she has enjoyed the experience so far. “There are staff everywhere and they are so nice,” she says. “Everyone is so helpful. When you are having dinner, there’s about five waiting staff to one person which can be a bit intense. You can tell the cruise wants to treat all the guests like VIPs.”
Sarah says the cruise isn’t really about glamour, as she had expected – but about football. “There are fans from absolutely everywhere and everyone is making friends,” she says.
“My mum was having a coffee on her own and some Saudi men said she could sit with them, so she did, and they had a lovely time chatting. Turns out one of their son’s goes to Leeds University”.
And the atmosphere after a match is good. “If you bump into an England fan, they will always say hello,” she says. There is plenty of mixing between nations, too. “We sat with Iran at the England game. It’s so social.”
Despite being more than 4,000 miles away from home, living on a mega-boat with £13 pints and hundreds of other football families – whose excitement and enthusiasm for their surroundings presumably hangs on England continuing to win matches – Sarah feels positive about the unusual holiday.
“It feels like you are surrounded by normal people, I love it”. But she is there for a few more weeks yet, there is plenty of time for cabin fever to set in.