As if by magic: the capacity of the World Cup stadium in Qatar grows by 12% overnight | World Cup 2022

Qatar’s World Cup took another strange turn on Tuesday with the capacity of its eight stadiums officially increasing by 12%.

Overnight Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted the opening match, went from 60,000 in the pre-tournament guide to 68,895 on the official website – while the largest stadium, Lusail, went from 80,000 to 88,966. It came after fans were confused by attendances that violated stadium capacity at every game.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the past 12 years the Guardian has reported on Qatar 2022 issues, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football homepage for those who want to delve into issues beyond the pitch.

The Guardian’s report goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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A source close to the organizers insisted the original numbers reflected FIFA’s requirements for stadiums with a minimum capacity of 80,000, 60,000 and 40,000. Qataris have since found that the number of seats they needed for broadcasting, media and sponsorship purposes was fewer than expected, so capacity increases.

The source added that Lusail can accommodate 92,000 people before broadcast and media requirements. Overall the combined capacities listed on the Qatar World Cup site increased from a total of 380,000 to 426,221 on Tuesday.

However, a second mystery remains: because there seem to be many more empty seats than those declared by the official data on attendance. Official figures suggest that more than 88,000 people watched Saudi Arabia shock Argentina at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday – less than a thousand undercapacity – but pockets of available seats were visible throughout the venue.

The first and most likely explanation is that the ticket holders don’t show up. The biggest gaps in all matches, particularly in Monday’s visibly undercrowded match between Senegal and the Netherlands, are at the more expensive seats that run along the side of the pitch in the top two tiers. This could mean that sponsors or invited guests have chosen not to participate.

It could also be that the tickets are held by local fans who are unable to attend the match. Although FIFA has confirmed that Qatar are among the nations to have bought the largest share of the 3 million tickets available, unsurprising for a host nation, the exact number sold has not been released.

The Guardian caught up with a Qatari fan this week who said he had tickets for 20 matches. These were purchased using two separate Fifa accounts, an unauthorized practice, and he said most of his friends had done the same. Finally, it is possible that foreign visitors, who bought tickets in the original form, have chosen not to travel.

Another possible explanation is the system used on the ground to sell tickets that have been returned or not sold. A central office at DECC Metro Station in Doha’s West Bay offers constant access to available match tickets. But the sales system doesn’t always show all the matches on sale, with most matches appearing to be sold out until the digital displays update to show new options.

Empty polling stations in Senegal-Netherlands on Monday
Empty polling stations in Senegal-Netherlands on Monday. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Other possible factors include problems with digital ticketing systems, with “ticket resolution” at the heart of substantial queues in the run-up to both Saudi Arabia and England matches.

It is certainly the case, however, that organizers have been talking about the number of people who will be coming to the tournament – with Fifa president Gianni Infantino saying on Friday: “Three million people will be in the stands to watch.” Such a statement does not always match the eye test.

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