It was 1pm and we had just met our new flat mates and the rest of the Aussies staying in the Seven Pearls apartment complex near Hamad Hospital. It was like the first day at school, meeting all these new people, but we knew we had one very big thing in common and that was a love of football and specifically a love of the Socceroos. We had been in the last people in the group to arrive in Qatar, the majority having arrived one or two days earlier and I had cancelled my media ticket a few days before for this one in favour of going as a fan. Our guide for the duration of our stay, Kaori, had instructed us that 1pm would be an appropriate time to head to the opening ceremony, giving us four and a half hours to get there in time for the big show. Surely it wouldn’t take that long…?
Well, no it didn’t, but it was quite a trek. A short walk to Hamad Hospital metro, a three-stop metro ride on the green line to Al Bidda, change to the red line and all the way to the northern end to get off at Lusail. A lengthy walk to the catch the shuttle bus, a 40-minute ride on a coach, and we were dropped a good kilometre from the stadium, looking up to the impressive structure on the horizon. What a sight. Everyone in the group was pumped, and we were under the impression that we would be playing some sort of role in the opening ceremony, however brief.
We had time for photos and face-paints in the stadium precinct, the area outside the security gates that was open to the public – this was all new to us and we were running on adrenaline – and we made our way into the stadium forecourt via the airport-style security checks that we would all need to become accustomed to. No water allowed through, which was a bugger as it was pretty warm, all flags were subject to checks and anything that was deemed too big or any cameras that were too powerful meant a trip to the left luggage tent to drop it off until after the game.
Once inside the perimeter, the internal stadium area was already busy. We had loads of time, so walked all around the stadium, checking out the media section, the VIP entrance, the entertainment and DJs and at one point managing to get on the wrong side of the fence trying to get back to the general public area. Everything was shiny and new, the entertainment outside the stadium had a middle-eastern feel and there was no alcohol. We didn’t expect or need it to be honest, we were high on anticipation and excitement.
The sun was setting as we finally ventured into the stadium itself, the structure true to its description as being just like a tent inside and out. Our seats were all together up a huge metal stairwell, and walking out through the tunnel into the stadium arena was absolutely awe-inspiring. The stadium may be in the middle of nowhere, but it is huge. Our seats were in the very top section but at the front, the view was sensational, like in the top tier at Bankwest Stadium with a very steep pitch to the seating.
We hadn’t eaten anything at all since arriving, and any chance of getting food was dashed when the food outlets declared that the food was not ready. Chips and drinks the only offering, we were more than happy to feast on junk food to fill the void. Every seat had a welcome bag – in the bag was a host of gifts – a special edition Al Bayt shirt, a lamp in the shape of the World Cup symbol, a hand puppet of the comical La’eeb mascot and other bits and pieces. That was a nice touch, something unique to take away from the occasion, and things that weren’t available to buy.
The opening ceremony got underway after three enormous floors were rolled out across the entire field. It was an impressive light show with fireworks and top-billing entertainers, and almost unbeknownst to us, the Australian section of the World Cup song was played, where we expected to be part of the show, and we all pretty much missed it. The organisers had originally paired Australia with the song Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi, but that was scrapped when it was pointed out that it was a cricket anthem, so the compromise was Olé Olé Olé Olé, Aussie, Aussie. Hardly insprising stuff, but the song by-passed most of us anyway.
Venturing back inside, after the ceremony had concluded, to see if food was available, the sight of a hundred or so locals on their knees praying together in front of the food outlets was quite a surprise. It wasn’t a shock, it just highlighted the fact that we were experiencing the first day of a World Cup in the Middle East. And no, there was no food still, so the only options were chips, which ended up being our main meal of the day.
Back in our seats, it was clear that there was an active section right behind the goal next to us, filled with Qatar fans who were making themselves heard. It was a fantastic spectacle, the capos at the front leading away the chants, everyone jumping and singing in unison, none of them clad in the Qatari national dress. The cynics amongst us were dismissing this as somewhat of a rehearsed choir, others were happy to believe that this was active support, even though it was perhaps too slick to be a genuine Qatar active bay.
The game was only a few minutes old when controversy struck. Ecuador, who had a healthy section of fans bedecked in yellow at the far end of the stadium, took the lead with a proper scrappy goal up at our end after the Qatar keeper came and fluffed his punch. A spectacular cross and emphatic header saw the Ecuador players run over to our corner of the stadium to celebrate. However, a long VAR check started and the we all looked around for any clues – the goal looked 100% legitimate and it appeared to be simply a mistake by the goalkeeper that led to the goal. As usual, in the stadium the fan gets absolutely no clue as to what is being checked and why, so this was a time for rumours to start and thoughts of corruption and skullduggery were being vocalised. When the goal was eventually correctly ruled out, I must admit I had some pretty negative thoughts swirling around my head – in fact it took some analysis of the goal the next morning on TV to understand why it was disallowed and even then it was not obvious.
There was no doubt about the opening goal when it came though, the only doubt was the colour of the card for the goalkeeper as he brought down his man on the run as he didn’t even seem to play for the ball. Enner Valencia stepped up and coolly rolled the ball into the corner of the goal and Ecuador were good value for their lead. More was to come in the first half, a looping cross from the right expertly headed in by that same man Valencia for two, and the South Americans were looking as though they would run riot. Two nil at the break, and there were whisperings that food was available, however that made the queues a mile long, and we favoured watching the football instead of waiting in line for a burger that may or may not have been ready.
The second half was quite exciting, despite the lack of goalmouth action, but with twenty minutes to go, the unthinkable started to happen. The Qatar fans started leaving. Not just one or two, but swathes of seats were left empty and it was very noticeable as the fans streamed out. The real meaning of football to the Qatari fans was in question. Was this simply a status symbol to say that you’d been to the World Cup opening ceremony? Did they care abiout the football at all? A lot of the home fans would have missed the late route-one pump forward and shot that almost set up a big finish to the game. In the end though the better team won, Qatar had been outclassed, and their World Cup aspirations looked in tatters already.
Post-game was a peculiar atmosphere. It was quiet. The fan festival tried in vain to keep the fans entertained, but the mood was hardly one of celebration for anyone who was not from Ecuador, and even then, it would have felt a little strange rejoicing the host nation’s demise on their own patch. We all headed back to the buses, which took us past the marvellous Lusail Stadium, where we had to walk another kilometre to get to the metro, which had another kilometre of walkways to get to the platform, and we changed at Al Bidda and back to Hamad Hospital and home for our first night’s sleep.
What a day this had been. From arriving in the early morning after an overnight flight of zero sleep, to attending the opening ceremony and opening game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There was a hell of a lot more football to come and after finally getting some food from the late-night supermarket around the corner and chatting into the early hours with our new flatmates, it was time to get some much needed sleep to recharge for day two.
If you’d like to read some more about the opening ceremony, check out the article I submitted the following day to The Roar about the game here. Otherwise close this tab and head to the next link. Isn’t this exciting?