A FIFA World Cup football frenzy

For 14 glorious days starting on Sunday 20th November 2022, this football tragic made the absolute most of the World Cup experience by attending a total of 26 games – one on the first day, two per day for 12 days and then a round of 16 game to finish. It wasn’t meant to be like this; after Andrew Redmayne saved that penalty to send the Socceroos to Qatar, this was only ever going to be a World Cup holiday to follow Australia. It turned into something much bigger than that, despite being the World Cup that you weren’t allowed to enjoy.

Al Janoub’s finest enjoy the afterglow of an unbelievable victory

My partner in crime / football / life, Michelle, veteran of five World Cups, had decided that this was the tournament to miss. After all, the cost of getting to Qatar and all the negative press about the country would surely make this a miserable experience and one that would break the bank. The negativity surrounding Qatar’s stance on same sex relationships, their general attitide towards women, and the archaic rules regarding moderate dress combined with the shocking way the World Cup was awarded to this tiny middle eastern country instead of to Australia and the reports of human rights violations and deaths in the construction of the stadiums all suggested that this was indeed a tournament to pass on. But in the back of my mind I thought otherwise. I had brought up my half-century early in the year and was determined to make the most of 2022. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

If you know, you know. This is FIFA’s version of water torture.

It all started happening after waiting a good 8 hours in the virtual queue on the FIFA ticketing website, something of a rite of passage for all World Cup fans, and finally securing the required group stage tickets for the Socceroos at some ungodly hour of the next morning. The next step was to find accommodation and flights, and again thanks to the scare stories circulating, this was going to be a tough assignment. We eventually settled on the Fanatics, who were basing themselves close to the Socceroos games just outside Doha, and who were reasonably priced, and with a visit to the UK to see my family tagged on to the start of the trip for myself, our flights were a mish-mash that required a travel agent to help organise and find a reasonable deal.

The idea of covering the World Cup as a journalist also came up – after all I was writing weekly NPL reports, accredited for A-League, active with The Roar website and was starting to build an online readership – so I contacted Football Australia to find out how this would work. The thought was that I would be in Qatar anyway, it was unlikely that a lot of media would be travelling to this much-maligned tournament, so I made an application for media accreditation and ran it past The Roar who were happy to be involved. The process was extremely long and filled with obstacles. First I had to apply for a FIFA Media Hub account and no one could give me any indication as to how long that would take. Then a special code was generated to allow me to apply for media accreditation via the Media Hub, which again sat as pending for many weeks without anyone to talk to about it. The process of applying for media tickets was the next step, and with no notion of how easy or hard this would be, I applied for a number of media tickets to fit around the games we had started to purchase as fans. There was even a tick box to say you wanted to attend a press conference or the mixed zone, and I added some of those to the Australian games and to games where I would be able to speak and understand the language.

This whole scenario was set against a backdrop of doubt. The media accreditation application remained pending, all the games I had applied to remained pending. I was almost sure that it would come to nothing, but we had started to have some success with the FIFA ticketing portal as fans and we had 10 games secured.

At the same time, both Michelle and myself were invited to be part of the much-criticised Fan Leader program; in mid-September, only a few weeks out from the tournament, the Supreme Committee of Qatar put together a package to invite fervent football fans of the nations involved in the World Cup to be at the tournament to represent their country, all expenses paid. It was an unbelievable opportunity for a number of ardent Socceroos fans who had written off Qatar as too difficult or too costly. It was, and still is, the fuel for many dissenters who were all too happy to shoot down anyone who dared to take partake in this so-called ‘sordid sportswashing exercise’. Frankly, it was like the footballing gods had finally delivered, and if we all go to hell, so be it.

We had already paid for our trip with the Fanatics anyway, but decided to take advantage of the accommodation option and the offer of tickets to the opening ceremony. After all, we couldn’t get tickets via the FIFA ticketing website as they were in high demand, and the media accreditation was still sitting as pending. This trip was getting better and better, and when the media accreditation was granted without warning and I met with Football Australia to discuss the logistics of going to Qatar, it all started to become real. The Roar’s brief was to provide accounts of the Australia games from the point of view of a fan. No problem! That’s what I do best, and above all I am an ardent football fan. We had recently travelled to Brisbane and Auckland to catch the games that celebrated the centenary of the Socceroos, and I was becoming addicted to it.

That meeting with Football Australia in mid-October formed the backbone of my realistic pre-tournament knowledge of Qatar and what I was getting into. Michael Zappone and Bec Trbojevich hosted all the accredited media for an afternoon at FA Headquarters in Barangaroo, and I was quite intimidated walking into a room with only a few people I knew. There were many faces and names I knew, but only a handful I had been in contact with previously. We learned about Tim Cahill’s Aspire Academy, the base for the Socceroos, with their accommodation onsite too, from 14th November onwards. It was relatively close to Al Janoub Stadium, had a media centre for 100 people overlooking the training fields and was going through a branding phase in green and gold at the moment to give it a Socceroos feel. The training would be at 6pm and 10am, which kickstarted some conjecture from the group about how that would fit in around TV schedules and times back in Australia.

Al Janoub Stadium, we were told, had a retractable roof and temps would be 29 degrees on average in November. There were 1,273 media tribune spaces, room for 220 photographers and 225 in the mixed zone for post-match interviews. When Graham Arnold joined the meeting midway through the afternoon, this gave me someone I was comfortable with, and his insight into what was to come was invaluable. He gave information on what to expect from the French, the first opponents, and let us know that there was a day off for the players prior to the tournament kicking off, to give them time to spend with family and friends. We had injury updates on Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles. The friends and family of the players were all staying with the Green and Gold Army; Arnie didn’t want any distractions for the players and knew they would do a professional job.

One of the group said they had been to Qatar and they could see five stadiums from their balcony, a suggestion of how close things were to each other, and that the stadiums would be cool, if not cold, for the working media in the tribunes. No drinks breaks would be needed by the players. There was one fan training day planned after the France game, but details were being finalised. I actually asked a few questions of Arnie, all centred around the fans, as that was my angle, and I felt a whole lot more comfortable about going to Qatar after hearing about it from people who had already been. The media would meet up in Qatar as a group, and all media opportunities for all countries would be available to all accredited media. That set me off thinking.

The second part of the afternoon was enough to bring me back down to earth. The scare stories that had been going around were underlined; affection in public is a definite no; if you were the victim of sexual assault you would contact the embassy and not the police directly; swearing is illegal; it was also suggested that negative online comments about a business eg a restaurant or hotel is illegal, so watch any comments online while you’re in the country; take care when taking photographs, to avoid capturing forbidden buildings. It all sounded just like the naysayers and doom-mongers had been saying online for months.

An interesting session on the working conditions of migrant workers was very pertinent too. The four numbers that had been quoted in the media of deaths of migrant workers during the construction of the venues for the 2022 World Cup were explained. Amnesty International’s number of 15,000 was all deaths of non-Qatari people in Qatar over the duration of the project. There was no suggestion of a number who worked on building the stadiums. The Guardian’s number of 6,500 was the number of deaths of Southern Asians in that time in Qatar, again without any context linking them to the building of the stadiums. There was a number of 50 deaths quoted by the International Labour Organisation for 2020, and there was another number of 3 quoted of workers who had died specifically from workplace injuries over the whole duration. Depending on which source the media chose to use to back up their stories, it was still too many, and if the 50 people dying in 2020 is correct, that’s not acceptable in any developed country. In fact Australia had 194 workplace deaths in 2020 according to Safework Australia, of which 36 were in construction. It was very difficult therefore to form an opinion on what the real figures were and whether or not they were believable.

The players had all been involved in sessions regarding human rights. There was discussion around armbands, there was expectation of rainbow flag protests, but that there would be no other repercussions other than confiscation of the flag if supporters chose to make that protest. Rainbow flags were allowed after all by FIFA. We learned that the traditional kafala system used to bring migrant workers into Qatar had been abolished (it was perhaps a little too close to slavery) and workplace reforms were high on Qatar’s priorities to bring the country into the 21st century. All positive stuff, but we could choose whether or not to believe it, coming from sources inside the host country.

The skeleton diary of events was explained too, a 55-man squad to be submitted to FIFA on 14th October, a 26-man squad announced on the 8th November, with the full squad announced on the 12th November. It was all very soon. I have to admit I was loving being on the inside for this meeting, learning things that I could not have known otherwise. The concerns about PCR tests, the Eterraz app requirement for entry, Hayya card issues and accreditation delays were shared by everyone, and the conversations continued afterwards at the pub, where Michelle came from her nearby work and joined the group along with our mate Chris from the FA.

I had already been in the UK for a few days visiting my folks and taking in some FA Cup first round action in the North East of England, when I checked my media ticket applications; lo and behold they all started to be approved. In fact, everything I applied for was granted. That changed everything. The initial plan I had put together, with media opportunities for England, the USMNT, Switzerland, France, Belgium and the Socceroos, now looked in jeopardy as I now had two games a day scheduled throughout the tournament group stages. And I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity.

The original plan. More than acceptable if the days are 48 hours long.

With no knowledge of the distance between events, the logistics of getting from one stadium or base camp to another for media commitments, the media oportunities I had hoped to be able to attend looked unlikely at best.

Through the arrivals gate window. A majestic sight of a brand new world.

On day one, after arriving at Hamad International Airport at 6.30am via an overnight flight filled with Welsh fans to the most beautiful sunrise and meeting Michelle at the baggage carousel from her flight from Sydney, the only things I was able to do was collect my media accreditation at the Accreditation Centre and attend an operational briefing at the Main Media Centre at the Qatar National Convention Centre.

A small part of the media broadcast centre at the QNCC – massive!

The amount of walking and queueing was an inidcation of things to come. It took up my whole morning. The process seemed to be set up for tens of thousands of media, but was very quiet when I was there, and as a consequence I was through the process fairly quickly, despite having to queue three separate times for three separate parts of the process – the accreditation, the photo, and the accreditation extension, a concept I learned about on the spot that would allow me to take photos in the stadium area and in the fan festivals.

Media briefing at the Main Media Centre – going through the basics

We had been told to meet to head to the opening ceremony at 1pm for a 5.30pm start, and luckily someone was able to pick up our tickets to the event on our behalf. I was still at the media centre in the briefing and left at 12 noon, not before using the ticket kiosk underneath the giant spider to print out my first round of media tickets for the following day’s games. It didn’t seem real yet, but I was happy with the fact that everything was in place, I had the media accreditation and I was ready to go!

The lobby at the Main Media Centre where the media were expected to spin their web on a daily basis

There was simply no time to attend any training sessions or media conferences, and I had to remember that this was also a holiday. We were straight into the action, and after a quick walk around the media centre to see what it contained, I raced off to the metro back to Hamad Hospital to our apartment to meet up with everyone else for the opening ceremony.

Broadcast control room gearing up for the opening ceremony that night

I’ve deliberated how to present this in the most readable manner, and I hope this works. Click on each link below to have a read of the fan experience on each day of the group stages of the FIFA World Cup 2022; I didn’t realise just how long this was going to take me, but it should be a good read. Some of the games I attended with Michelle as a fan, the Socceroos games I was behind the goals where the most active fans would hopefully be, but a great number of them I was attending in the capacity of a journalist. The learning experience was fantastic, the majority of the matches I attended were wonderful spectacles and this unique World Cup definitely delivered a feast of football that will never be repeated in my lifetime. Read on, I know you’re interested if you got this far …

Sun 20/11/2022 : The opening ceremony and VAR controversy

Mon 21/11/2022 : The home countries in action

Tue 22/11/2022 : Saudi glory and the Aussies kick off

Wed 23/11/2022 : Japan conquer as Canada waste a golden chance

Thu 24/11/2022 : Swiss efficiency and Brazil too good

Fri 25/11/2022 : Iranian delight and a misfiring England team

Sat 26/11/2022 : Australia show grit, Argentina back on track

Sun 27/11/2022 : Costa Rica shocker and Canada score first

Mon 28/11/2022 : Ghana fightback and Portugal too strong

Tue 29/11/2022 : Senegal power on, Wales throw in the towel

Wed 30/11/2022 : Danish delight for Socceroos and Argentina do enough

Thu 01/12/2022 : Morocco magic, Japan keep Spain sweating

Fri 02/12/2022 : Uruguay on their knees, angry Serbs undone by Swiss

Sat 03/12/2022 : Argentina given a fright by battling Aussies

Our World Cup odyssey came to an end the day after the Argentina game and after packing up our suitcases and saying our goodbyes to our remaining flatmates, we found ourselves at Hamad International Airport watching the French beat Poland in front of a big screen in the departures area with like-minded Aussie fans. We never did work out if there were two airports in Doha, or if airport code HIA was the same as DOH. I was leaving without seeing the Netherlands play, but I’d managed to see every other team in action and visited every stadium of the World Cup – I’ll never be able to say that ever again.

A two-day stop in Singapore allowed us to take in the rest of the Round of 16 games culminating in the dramatic Morocco victory against Spain in an outdoor bar near Boat Quay. We had planned that last leg of the trip as a recovery, but we would need a lot more than two days to recover from such a manic World Cup experience.

The remainder of the World Cup would be consumed in front of the TV at home in Australia, but with the memories of the experience fresh, and knowing the venue of each of the games, that gave us good insight into how the fans would have got there and what the stadium was actually like. I hope you’ve enjoyed this account of the tournament, and I welcome any comments on here, or on the social media link you clicked to get here. I had to get it written down quickly to make sure I remembered everything, and this will be an evolving piece so make sure you check back for more; any suggestions are welcome to improve the experience.

And yes, I have the most supportive and understanding partner in Michelle. Who else would put up with me disappearing to games every other day? I think we both had a blast in our own different ways. Singapore was great though, and I look forward to our next football tourist trips that are taking shape in 2023 and beyond.

Thanks for reading. Catch me on Twitter at @SmithTexi – my DMs are open.

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