We arrived at the final day of the group stage games with a lot on our minds. We had managed to get our flights changed (and free of charge!) so we could attend the Socceroos’ Round of 16 game against Argentina. We didn’t yet have match tickets though, but there had been an expression of interest circulated and fans were invited to apply for the right to buy tickets. We were awaiting details of how to buy those tickets, but as we were getting up quite late after our usual late night, it was now after hours in Australia and there was little going to eventuate until later in the day. Quite an eerie feeling of not having a ticket to a game that was happening the next day.
The extra strong panadol from the pharmacy in the metro was doing the trick, and we were both feeling a lot more with it after a much-needed sleep-in until the afternoon. Today would see two games for me, the first a return to Al Janoub Stadium, scene of Australia’s three group stage games, and then Michelle was heading to Stadium 974 where we’d take in our final group game. Michelle’s day looked a lot more relaxed than mine to be honest, heading for dinner at a rooftop bar and watching the early games in luxury on the big screens side by side showing the two games. I felt like I was missing out, but I had to remember that this was the World Cup and I was seeing international football of the highest level, live and in person, with the ultimate drama providing incredible scenarios for each fixture. The one at Al Janoub was no exception. Uruguay’s loss to Portugal left them on a solitary point; Korea Republic’s loss to Ghana had left them with a single point too, but all three teams behind Portugal had the chance to qualify. Ghana could advance with a draw. Portugal were through already. This one was a three way shoot out, the final group stage games being played simultaneously a massive assist to the drama.
I bumped into a fellow Socceroos fan en route to the metro and he told me about his night in a Qatari prison. He had been in an altercation with some fans of another country who ended up taking his wallet and the next thing he knew he was thrown into a prison cell with a selection of the country’s less salubrious visitors and migrants. Hopefully he has the opportunity to tell the whole story to the media, as it sounded like something out of a movie. He was relieved to be released without any further action, but the hours that he spent in that cell, interacting with some unsavoury characters who were unfriendly to say the least, sounded like my idea of hell.
Excusing myself from an absorbing conversation with the hope of resuming at some point, I had to make tracks. The route to Al Janoub was very familiar, this being the fifth time at this stadium, and I opted for the metro / shuttle bus option from Al Wakra station. I was there early, so the crowds weren’t fierce, and everything worked as it should. The main bulk of fans heading to the game appeared to be neutrals, but there were small groups of Uruguayan and Ghanaian fans intermingled with interested locals and overseas football fans from all different countries. There was plenty of colour leading into the stadium, and once inside the stadium and installed in my media desk, there was a good section of Uruguay fans behind the Mitch Duke end and a smaller but more colourful patch of Cameroon fans behind the Mathew Leckie end.
The enormity of the game could be lost on the uneducated supporter, but the tension of the Uruguay fans and the way the players came out in the first few moments of the game underlined just how vital a victory was for Uruguay. Of course, they didn’t have the ‘divine right’ to qualify for anything, as we had seen in 2005, so they would need to earn it. Those words from Alvaro Recoba still resonated with me to this day, and I was hoping for a big performance from Ghana to at least give them a scare.
True to form, Uruguay were in the ascendency early on. Their players were urging the referee to speed up the game, with Ghana very slow to execute anything. Luis Suarez was getting lots of heckling when he had the ball, and not only from the Ghana fans. Portugal were already on their way to a victory in the other game, the screen down below me showing that game, but it was at the end where the Uruguay fans were situated where the first moment of drama occurred. Jordan Ayew cut inside looking for a shooting opportunity and when it finally opened up, he fired in a shot. It looked as though it was flicked by Andre Ayew and was well saved by Sergio Rochet on the stretch, pushing the ball away. Mohammed Kudus was there on the follow up, but Rochet was out quickly to him and the belly flop from the Ghana forward failed to interest the referee. It was offside anyway.
When the referee asked the players to wait for a VAR check and was then called over to the screen, everyone in the media tribune was quite perplexed. Surely Andre Ayew was offside, surely Kudus dived. But no, after some deliberation, the referee emerged back on to the field and signalled a penalty to the disgust of the Uruguay players. This level of anger and disbelief at the official reminded me of Liverpool fans surrounding the referee at Anfield in that famour defeat to Arsenal in 1989. The level of entitlement and the bemusement was something else, and I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sorry for them. Up stepped Andre Ayew, who musn’t have got anything on to the ball in the lead up to the penalty, and he rolled the penalty too close to Rochet, who saved easily. Ayew’s lazy approach meant that he didn’t have the momentum to get to the rebound and the ball was hacked away, the band of Uruguay fans going crazy behind the goal. This was the drama and excitement we had come to see, and the referee had a full view of an almost all-in brawl developing in front of him.
Darwin Nunez was released and beat the keeper but Mohammed Salisu made it back to the line to hack clear. It wasn’t long before Ghana were punished for that miss. A sweeping cross was played in down the right by Facundo Pellistri and two Ghana defenders made a poor attempt to get to the ball. It fell to Suarez, who cut inside and bent in a low shot that goalkeeper Lawrence Ati-Zigi got a hand to, but the bleached blond-haired Georgian de Arrascaeta was there to nod home almost on the line and race away in celebration. What a turnaround in fortunes!
And it got better for Uruguay, when a flowing move of one-touch passes led to Suarez looping a clever ball to de Arrascaeta on the left hand side of the box, and he took the volley with utter precision, firing under Ati-Zigi to make it two. It looked like it was Uruguay’s day already. Ghana had been picked apart and made to pay for the penalty miss.
There was a lot of added time to the opening half, eight minutes, and Uruguay were almost out of sight when Jose Maria Gimenez leapt to meet a smart free-kick, but the header was just over the bar. Half time was upon us and it was a good opportunity to catch up on the other game’s highlights, Portugal having lost their lead and their game with South Korea poised at 1-1. There was a moment that was missed by the referee perhaps, de Arrascaeta stamping on his man, and we all saw it, but he got away with it.
Ghana replaced both Ayews, and they were straight on the attack at the start of the second half. They had a great chance when substitute Osman Bukari flashed in a cross that Kudus just couldn’t reach, and the scene was set for a flowing second half where Ghana just had to throw caution to the wind and find goals from somewhere. Daniel Amartey clumsily brought down Nunez in the box but the the referee was again unmoved, and the VAR check was completed and play continued. Uruguay brought off Suarez and replaced him with Edison Cavani and they looked to be going for more goals. Federico Valverde smashed in a shot from distance that Ati-Zigi got down well to deal with. Livewire Kudus then skipped past two challenges and fired in a shot from outside the area that just cleared the bar, a reminder to Uruguay of their perilous position if Portugal were to fold in the other game.
Ghana made their final changes to spice up the attack as the crowd of 43,443 was announced. That looked generous considering the amount of empty seats around the stadium. Baba Rahman won the ball in an advanced position and Kudus took the ball off his toes to fire in a fabulous shot that Rochet turned onto the post and out for a corner. The game was reaching fever-pitch. Uruguay didn’t really know whether to stick or twist, but they knew what they had to do when the news filtered through of a dramatic goal for South Korea in their game against Portugal. Uruguay now needed to find another goal, just one more to confirm their place in the Round of 16 on goal difference.
There were two minutes of normal time remaining and Ghana were caught on the attack, Uruguay streaming forward. A cross from the left found Cavani who headed goalwards, but Ati-Zigi made an incredible save, forcing the ball acroabtically over the bar. Cavani couldn’t believe it. We had eight minutes now of additional time and both teams had moved to what seemed like a 2-3-5 formation. The South Korea game had finished and we could see on the monitor that everyone there was watching the final moments of this game. It was like a basketball game now, end to end stuff, defence optional, and Uruguay were streaming forward. Cavani went down under a challenge in the box; the referee waved play on – it did look like a penalty as he had got past his man for pace, but the VAR check concurred with the official. This was edge-of-the-seat stuff, pure excitement and everyone was completely engrossed in the drama.
Uruguay broke after Sebastian Coates had thrown himself in front of a shot from Antoine Semenyo and had the numerical advantage but Maxi Gomez chose to shoot from distance, Ati-Zigi making another fine save for a corner. It was like the last throes of a heavyweight boxing match, both teams trying to land the big knockout punch; Ghana had a chance that Rochet saved, and he played the ball quickly up the other end and Coates found himself up front, prodding a shot wide when teed up by Cavani. It just wasn’t happening for the Uruguayans. Ati-Zigi didn’t seem to understand the urgency, still taking his time with the goal kicks, which was annoying the coaches on the bench.
It all came down to a free-kick, centrally and with the clock already past the alloted time; Nicolas De La Cruz lifted the ball in but it was comfortable for Ati-Zigi and the referee blew for full-time. Predictably, the Uruguay players raced to the referee, wanting to know what happened to all the stoppage time in the additional ten minutes and yellow cards were being handed out to anyone who got in the referee’s face.
What a finish to a game. The monitors in the row below in the media tribune showed the emotions coming from the Portugal v South Korea game. That late winner and the fifteen minute wait to see the result from Al Janoub must have been torture. The protestations went on from Uruguay, while the Ghana players went to thank their supporters and took their exit in a much more gracious manner. No one has the divine right to qualify, and today the Korea Republic had the luck on their side.
Stepping out of the media tribune into the concourse was like waking up from a dream. That was an incredible game of football and terrific entertainment for anyone with any knowledge of football. I now had a race against time to get to Stadium 974 to meet up with Michelle for our final group stage game together. I had no mixed zone and no media tickets to print, so quickly found out where the media shuttle went from and got on the only available bus. It was already packed. I was at the front of the bus, and the doors had been closed as soon as I got on. The volunteers urged more people to get on through the middle doors, and the bus was absolutely jam packed as we pulled away, and I was standing in front of the windscreen with very little between me and certain death in the case of an accident. It was quite a hairy ride, trying to maintain balance as the bus took some corners quite sharply, but once out of the Al Janoub area, it was a very quick passage to Stadium 974. I had been on this bus two days before and I knew that it would drop us right in front of the media entrance, but not before passing the Serbia fans who were doing their own march on a tight pathway and singing their songs.
Arriving at the media entrance gave me a quandry. I wasn’t media for this game, so couldn’t get through the media security gate; it wasn’t easy to find a way out of the area where we’d got off the bus, but there was a gap in the fence that took me to the spectator side and I lined up in what I thought was the shortest queue. It may have been at the time, but it soon became the longest line. A bit of crowd mismanagement, a bit like our experience at Education City, saw all the other queues flowing nicely, but ours not moving. Those at the front of the queue were getting restless, and the Serbian fans who had not moved for twenty minutes starting shouting. This at least got us moving a little, but I’d guess that my passage through that queue took at least 50 minutes. Ridiculous. I still had to explain away my laptop and camera, but I had become quite practiced at that, and I had a legitimate excuse.
Meanwhile Michelle was on her own trek around the stadium, having taken the metro and been directed onto the longest walk ever. I was inside the stadium first and the Whatsapp group started firing up; the tickets were available for the Argentina game, and we had a code that would allow us to purchase two. That sounded dangerous – we both had codes for two tickets, and this could be a big opportunity for rogue tickets to be bought and sold, diluting the Socceroos fans with Argentina fans. Surely not! I quickly logged on and finished the transactions by the time Michelle had made it inside, not long before the national anthems. We didn’t use Michelle’s code, but the idea of other people buying more than they needed and offloading to other fans was on our minds.
Michelle arrived with drinks in hand, and we settled in for the pregame. Unbelievably there was no flag in the centre of the field, and no inflatable World Cup – what was this mystery? Had vandals broken in and trashed the Stadium 974 flag? Did the World Cup have a puncture? We’ll never know, but it was conspicuous by the absence of these key ingredients of the prematch show. The national anthems were forgettable – the Serbian gentleman behind us sang the national anthem so out of tune that it was as appealing as someone letting the air slowly out of a balloon. The best part about the lead up to the game itself though was the countdown. It was typical Serbia, heading into a huddle just as the countdown began and the team broke out of the countdown just as it reached 1; they make the rules, they don’t follow them. The booing from the fans let them know that it was not cool at all, and they had immediately got on the wrong side of 75% of the crowd.
I was here for the Newcastle United connection. Fabian Schar, abrasive defender who was starring in the Toon’s stellar season so far, was up against Aleksandar Mitrovic, former striker and unhinged Serbian hitman. It was a mouth-watering prospect.
Switzerland were on the offensive from the kick off, Granit Xhaka thumped in an effort that struck a Serbian defender, and when the ball was helped on to Breel Embolo, he couldn’t find the finish, the ball hanging in the air as Vanja Milinkovic-Savic raced out his goal to block the shot on the edge of the six yard box. The ball fell to Xhaka again, and the keeper made another save before the ball was finally cleared. What a great start to the game, one that had both teams needing to win, Serbia by a lot more goals than Switzerland would need. It was a fascinating context, Brazil already through, but Cameroon and Serbia having shared a lot of goals in their encounter to make their ‘goals scored’ column stand out against Switzerland’s.
We didn’t have to wait long for a goal though, Ricardo Rodriguez and Ruben Vargas combining down the left, the ball in only half cleared leaving Djibril Sow in acres of space. For some reason he didn’t want to take the shot and laid it off to Xeridan Shaqiri, a player with plenty of history against Serbia, and his shot squeezed inside the near post through a sea of legs and Switzerland had the lead. Serbia were straight on the offensive, knowing that they would need to cancel out that goal quickly to stand any chance of getting their hands on second place. And they got their reward with one of the simplest goals of the World Cup so far. Dusan Tadic dispossessed his man in midfield and advanced unopposed. He had time to pick his spot, and Mitrovic stole a few yards in front of the last defender to place a perfect header over Gregor Kobel for the equaliser. It all seemed slow-motion, and Switzerland had gifted them the ball in midfield in the lead-up.
Shaqiri almost got the Swiss back into the lead with a run and shot that was just wide, but it was Serbia who took control. Shaqiri turned villain when he misplaced a pass and Tadic took the gift to advance towards the area, slipped the ball through for Dusan Vlahovic, who rode a challenge and struck a sweet left foot shot past Kobel into the corner of the goal up the far end. Serbia were now in the driving seat and heading through to the next round.
Another goal of incredible simplicity was coming though. Shaqiri’s burst through the middle was fed out right and the low cross into the box found Embolo completely free and he made no mistake from five yards out to score at the far post for 2-2. What a game, and we weren’t even at half time yet. There was a skirmish in amongst the Serbian fans down below us; there was a Swiss fan being led away giving it the large one to the antagonistic Serbian fans around him. It must have been bad though, as there were two Swiss fans at the front of the section who were happily bouncing up and down waving their Swiss flag and minding their own business, and they didn’t attract any ill will from the Serbia fans around them.
This was the first bit of ‘bother’ that we’d seen inside the stadiums since the start of the tournament and would hopefully be the last.
The first half drew to a close with the scores level, but we had been served up a classic here. The queues were way too long for half time food and drink, so we refrained and long-time Socceroos fan and fellow Meadowbank Ultra Mark joined us for the second half, taking one of the empty seats nearby.
The second half was only two minutes old when a glorious passage of play carved open the Serbia defence. Embolo used his pace to retrieve a ball on the edge of the Serbia area and played the ball back for Shaqiri. His cute dink into the area was deftly flicked by Ruben Vargas into the path of Remo Freuler, who had time to pick his spot with a left-foot finish to give the Swiss the lead in front of their bank of fans all clad in red. Embolo missed an absolute sitter soon after, firing over from point blank range, but his blushes were saved by the offside flag.
Both teams had half chances before the inevitable raft of substitutions. Shaqiri was taken off and was not happy, reacting to seeing his number come up with a look of disgust and a wave of his hand in dismay. The crowd of 41,378 was a little disappointing, but not surprising given the gaps in the end where the Swiss fans were housed. The game was still being played at a frantic pace, and there were chances at both ends, Edimilson Fernandes playing in Christian Fassnacht on the left, completely free, but Milinkovic-Savic was quick off his line. There were words being traded between players on the field and the Serbian bench, and the referee was close to losing control. The yellow cards were being flashed all over, mainly to Serbian players as the game threatened to bol over into a fight. Xhaka was surrounded by players, and it took some moments for order to be restored. Cameroon had scored now, and a goal for Serbia might allow the Africans to sneak into second spot.
The added time extended to ten then eleven mintes and Serbia had a late late free kick, but the wild shot went way over and with it Serbia’s chances of making the next round. The Swiss were celebrating, but seemed wary of the Serbian players and there appeared to be no love lost between some of the players. We stayed until the players had left the field and the majority of fans had gone too. It was fascinating to see the fans taking selfies and photos, so happy to be at the World Cup and enjoying whatever football was on show in front of them. This had been a great game, plenty of goals, and whilst it wasn’t as dramatic as say the South Korea qualification, it was still laden with drama and pantomime.
Some unfortunate fellow in front of us had dropped his wallet and was now nowhere to be seen. We asked around and had a look inside to see whose it was to see if we could see them. There were no takers, so Michelle handed it over to a volunteer, who put it in his pocket and assured us that he would get it to lost property. That was actually quite a heart-warming moment; football fans from around the world working together to try and find the owner of a wallet, and we could just imagine the pain that it would cause if we were in the same situation ourselves.
Once out of the stadium and in the area on the outside, the structure of the building had our fascination. The shipping containers were more extensive than first thought, and all of the infrastructure, including the stairwells, food and beverage and toilets were all brightly coloured containers, converted for use with a lot of design flair.
We made our way to the metro station, Ras Bu Fontas, past the big sign and got plenty of photos. It was such a magical sight with the stadium illuminated in the background. This was where the emotions of the players from within the stadium spilled over to the fans outside the stadium, and there was a bit of biff – punches thrown and security staff quick on the scene to quell the trouble. Luckily it was all over quickly.
This was also the only incident we had seen outside the stadium at all the games we’d attended. There were obviously others, but the mood in general was one of celebration, regardless of the scores in the games. The Tunisia fans were still partying after losing the game against us, we were still full of joy after the French had battered us. Even the English were behaved when coming up against the Welsh. The obvious factor in this good behaviour was the absence of alcohol, or at least the limitation of alcohol; arriving at the stadium you might have been well refreshed, but by the time you left you were almost sober. This was a success of the World Cup in Qatar, and despite missing the ready availability of beer to help unwind and relax on a holiday, it was a very astute move by the Qatar Supreme Committee to uphold their original decision to remove alcohol from the equation on game day.
The queue for the metro was enormous, the volunteers stiopping us every few metres to let the crowds thin out, eventually letting us through in almost single file; this had been a feature of the World Cup so far and was up there with the negatives of the tournament. Queuing for hours should not be a major feature of a successful day out at the football. During this time the Argentina tickets had popped up on my FIFA ticketing app, and we were all set for tomorrow for the big day. Everything had fallen into place, and we could relax.
We ordered food at the local takeaway, mixing with fans of all countries outside as the stray cats prowled for scraps. The Cameroon fans, so glum earlier in the tournament when they lost to Switzerland, were overjoyed by their win against Brazil, while some Croatian fans called me Dunga, saying that I looked just like the Brazilian maestro of yesteryear. I can’t quite see it!
We got back to a busy apartment and ate our food, catching up with the goings on of the day; everyone had a ticket for tomorrow and the excitement was already building. Our fridge was stocked for breakfast with fry-up food and a slab of beers and Australia were in the Round of 16 against Argentina. What an occasion to bring our World Cup oddysey to a close!
Matches attended : 25 of 48
Matches missed : Cameroon v Brazil, Korea Republic v Portugal