Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. On 26 November 2016, it hosted its first preparation event with the arrival of me for the Qatar Stars League clash between Al Arabi and Al Sadd. How did it do? I will try (and probably forget) to answer the question below.
Fate had handed us a trump card when it transpired that we would be on our 23 hour stopover in Doha at the same time as the aforementioned fixture. I managed to bribe Gy with the promise of pre-match Indian and post-match Lebanese to enable me to take in my first non-European football match.
The game took place at the evocatively named Hamad Al Khalifa Stadium, some 4km south of the historic heart of Doha. Qatar is an interesting place. Home to some 1.8mn people (basically the same size as Budapest), less than 15% of the population are Qatari citizens and entitled to the fabulous wealth on offer thanks to the plentiful gas reserves beneath the peninsula. The rest are predominantly workers from the sub-continent with a smattering of Filipinos and white people. We walked to the stadium, which presented us with some of the foibles of Qatar. White people do not walk, which means we were followed by a trail of taxi drivers waiting for us to realise that our race was not designed for any sort of manual exertion. Despite Qatari wealth, the pavements are sh’t. We are talking ankle breaking, traffic flirting pieces of dirt. A very rare rainfall had also meant whole areas were flooded.
Bouncing terraces. Nice flags though.
When we turned up at the stadium, there seemed to be little sign of a football match other than a large group of men wearing matching primary coloured shirts. These turned out to be the ticket sellers who informed us we were two hours early so we headed to a local mall for a pre-match water melon juice after which I was buzzing.
Pre-game habits die hard. What is cultural sensitivity?
The stadium has something of a Soviet Concrete Bowl (Medium) about it. Although it is pristinely white and distinctly lacking in crumbling terraces.
“How much are your cheapest tickets?”
“Ten rial (EUR 2.50)”
“One hundred rial!!!”
“Ok. Two tickets, please.”
“For the family section, I assume, sir?”
“Um. Non-family section.”
“But your wife is a woman.”
“Is that a problem? Or dangerous?”
The latter part of this conversation was then repeated twice more at the ticket gate and security check. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Gy was the only adult female inside the whole stadium or as she called it ‘Fighting for her rights!”
Such nifty attire.
The stadium was not full. Just over 1,000 were inside the 12,000 capacity venue despite this being considered the clash of the two most successful teams in Qatar. Indeed, Wikipedia is quoted as saying “Al Arabi always regarded themselves as the club of Qatar’s working class, in contrast with the more upper-class support base of Al Sadd.” I am not sure how working class a Qatari can be. These boys are not eating pies and drinking mild after a day down the pit on a regular basis.
Excitingly, most of those in attendance were bedecked in thawb and keffiyeh (aka traditional Arabic dress) and frankly smashing everyone looked too (yet further proof that they were not working class miners). We discussed for a considerable period of time as to how they are kept so pristine and ironed. We did not arrive at an answer. If I ever wore a thawb, it would be covered in food and other stains of unknown origin immediately.
Xavi was playing. Having seen his face plastered all over Qatar Airways inflight entertainment system, it came as no surprise that he was playing when actually given that I assumed he still played for Barcelona, learning that he was in this far flung footballing outpust should have been a shock. I had not heard of any of the other players. The game was ridiculously open with Al Sadd scoring from the spot early on before swarming all over Al Arabi who themselves looked like they might score every time they managed to break out. This is clearly a league where defensive prowess is shunned in favour of kamikaze attacks. I like. Al Arabi equalized shortly before half-time through the generically Hispanic sounding Luis Antonio Jiménez.
Xavi, a corner flag and a golf buggy.
Half time was a damp squib with limited refreshments available. Not the type I was looking for anyway. So we checked on our bags, which the security guards had refused to let us in with before confiscating are empty water bottles. I can only assume bottles must be full in Qatar given that every other person in attendance came armed with water and/or juice. Or the security guards racially profiled us. Or the security guards gender profiled Gy.
The second half was more of the same. Al Sadd dominating with Al Arabi looking to pounce. That man, Xavi, finally found the break through on 84 minutes before Al Sadd made it 3-1 a minute later. In a goal scoring bonanza, Senor Jimenez bagged a brace as Al Arabi eventually went down 3-2.
We went to find Lebanese food and smoke shisha.
And my original question. 1,000 people for the biggest game in the country is hardly indicative of a nation that has embraced the world’s game. The culture was a bit different with the usual chanting of the terrace replaced by some rhythmic Arab folk songs (I liked this bit). It is quite hard to see how a nation of 1.8mn people only 10% of whom are nationals are going to hold the world’s second largest sport’s tournament. But they have they have the money, if not the defensive coaches.
Previous – Sverige
Next –Northerners in Purple