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

I have to admit that I was on a go slow in the morning for this one, which was obviously due to a lack of sleep. With our apartment on the same metro line as today’s game, I had a misguided sense that I didn’t need to rush, and as a result was out of the door with less than an hour and a half before kick off. It’s not like I was late – the metro was packed with fans, the Wales fans in their colourful bucket hats, but the Iranians with the most noise – and this was Friday, the national day of prayer, so perhaps everyone was in less of a rush than usual. This was the first game at Ahmed Bin Ali stadium in daylight hours, and stepping out of the metro building and into the huge expanse surrounding the stadium, it was actually a very impressive looking structure.

As with all of the 1pm kick offs in the Qatar World Cup, the heat and the sun would play its part, and this one was no exception. There was not a cloud in the sky, but the temperature and conditions were no different to a warm day in Australia when the A-League is scheduled in the afternoon. I was there early enough to avoid being shepherded to the other entrance gate a kilometre away from the stadium, and made it through security quickly and efficiently.

Once inside the stadium forecourt, the Iran fans were the ones making all the noise and being the most interactive with the TV cameras. Thanks to the extension pass that I acquired on arrival, I was able to take photos with my actual camera, and it was a magnet to the Iranians; they were extremely proud to be at the World Cup, were in celebration mood despite their massive loss in the first game, but were not taking anything for granted in a tricky match-up with Wales.

The now customary trip to the media centre was made, to print out the media tickets for the next day’s games, and from the lawn area outside where the media set up for live TV crosses, the view of the stadium was stunning. The intricate mesh on the exterior of the stadium, apparently in place to allow projections to be made onto the stadium, does give an ultra-modern feel, but the initial claim that the stadium was inspired by sand dunes is a little tenuous.

The entrance to the stadium was an interesting one. There were barriers, and a manned gate, to separate the general public from the media, but there was no signage to tell you where to go. I’d been here twice already, albeit at night time, and today was no different – people were wandering in all different directions, and people were trying to get through the gate to get to the car park, but it was blocked off for media. A totally confusing scenario that would have been easily rectified with a sign or two. The media entrance, tucked around a corner behind a fire truck would catch out every member of the media at least once, but now this was familiar territory and I was up in the media tribunes in my desk with plenty of time to spare.

The Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium claims to have all fans in shade, but this is simply not true. It was the Welsh fans who had to endure the full sun this time, again the air conditioning helping the fans stay cool, but the sun was beaming – those bucket hats would come in so handy today. There were noticeably fewer photographers for this one, the Iran end was sparsely populated compared with the compact sea of red at the other end, but today saw the return of the inflatable World Cup. It was like a homecoming, and the pre-game was complete.

The Wales national anthem was again a beautiful moment, thousands of voices roaring the final lines in an emotional rendition, then the Iran national anthem was simply booed by the Iran fans. There was good noise in the stadium and the Iranian end had filled up. The countdown to kick off was impeccable, and the game got underway at an alarming pace. This was going to be a proper cup tie – Iran had to get a win, Wales needed to get a result to keep their hopes alive, and the first moments of the game were played at a speed that didn’t match the hot and sunny conditions.

It was all action in the first few minutes, Chris Mepham made a spectacular dive to head the ball back to his goalkeeper, and the Iranian fans went off, the horns blaring and the volume turned up to the max. The Welsh fans responded and the game was matching the fervour in the crowd. Kieffer Moore had a great chance from a cross from the right, and he copped a knock as his right-foot shot was straight at Hossein Hosseini the Iran goalkeeper.

The linesman on our nearside was having a stinker early on – he was reluctant to make a call either way until the referee decided for him, at one point giving a throw in when the ball had clearly hit the corner flag and gone out for a goal kick. Iran had the ball in the net after 15 minutes, intricately picking their way through the Wales defence, but they played one ball too many and the goal was rightly ruled offside after a VAR check. It was clearly offside – not sure why play went back to the halfway line and the VAR took so long.

Action up at the Iran end

Iran were streaming forward, a white tide rushing in, but Wales held firm. Mepham and Joe Rodon were impressive at the back, Rodon disgusted with himself for getting booked when he committed to the challenge and the Iran player was too quick for him. There was an incredible moment midway through the first half. Harry Wilson hurdled a tackle on the sideline that left him in touch. He waited a few seconds then crawled back onto the field and lay down, as if no one in the stadium would have seen him. It was the most pathetic attempt to get play halted, and he received plenty of barracking for it. The referee was having none of it and waved play on.

An unsuccessful Mexican Wave was thankfully quashed, and the half ended with the fans lapping up a fabulous game of football, classic counter attacking football from both teams in an exciting do-or-die match. The quality was perhaps not the highest, but the excitement and entertainment was top drawer.

The second half was only five minutes old when Iran broke, Sardar Azmoun raced clear and rattled the ball off the post. The rebound was recycled and Ali Gholizadeh cut in onto his left foot and curled a cracking effort off the other post. The rebound was headed into Wayne Hennessey’s hands with the goal gaping and Azmoun was denied a second time. What drama, what a spectacle!

Wales were now under pressure, Hennessey pushed one away around the post. A crowd of 40,875 was announced, the Iran area seeming a lot fuller inthe second half, whether by consolidation of fans into the main Iran area, or late-running fans finally arriving. The referee was forced to manhandle an Iranian player to get the ball off him as the gamesmanship started, then Connor Roberts raced onto a flick by Moore and could only blast over the bar. Five minutes remained and the game was in the balance.

Iran went route-one, Mehdi Taremi raced onto the through ball, but Hennessey came racing out of his goal and brought him down with a crude challenge. The yellow was out early, but VAR brought the referee over to the screen and the colour was changed to red, Hennessey already walking off as he knew his fate.

Wales looked as though they had weathered the storm, playing with ten men, until 90 seconds from the end of added time. A weak clearance from Joe Allen was picked up by Rouzbeh Chesmi, who cut inside and rifled in a shot from way outside the box that seared into the net past the outstretched hand of substitute goalkeeper Danny Ward. The Iran bench stormed onto the field. It was a massive moment, so late in the game and the celebrations were prolonged. The game continued though, Wales still had time, but they were caught on their right-hand side, again Allen giving the ball away, and the counter attack was on. Defender Ramin Rezaeian was racing up alongside Taremi, and he was finally given the ball and lifted it majestically over Ward for a second goal, ten minutes into the nine added minutes. The game was over. What a finish to an absolute thriller of a game.

Wales players on their knees as Iran celebrate in style

The joy and emotion of the Iran players and fans was amazing. I left to head into the mixed zone where Chris Mepham was stoic, saying that his team were solid and that there was nothing to lose in the next game. There was no need to stay in the mixed zone, the Wales players were obviously gutted and the Iran players walked straight through without talking to the written media. Wales were effectively out, although there was still the England v USA game to come today which could throw up a surprise, and that was the next stop. After an hour or so in the media centre, where I grabbed a quick drink and caught some of the Qatar v Senegal game, it was time to move on. Looking back at the stadium, as with all stadiums post-game, the colours of the winning team were projected on the walls. A nice touch for the winning team and the scene in many iconic post-game photos (that weren’t taken on an iPhone SE).

Stadium lit up in Iran colours, if a little pink

After finding a media shortcut through the no man’s land next to the volunteer area, I was on the metro in no time. It was around 5pm, and Michelle had been sightseeing and was heading for her massage, so I just stayed on the metro, changed at Al Bidda and made my way to Lusail, past the venue for the World Cup final, to catch the shuttle bus to Al Bayt for the 10pm game. Loads of time to make the journey and avoid the crowds, and that’s how it turned out, arriving at the security gates to this magnificent stadium with hours to spare.

On the walk up to the stadium security gates, a Middle Eastern band was playing some numbers on the bagpipes – surely this was inflammatory to the English, perhaps there was a Scottish person at FIFA who organised the entertainment tonight and was sitting at home having a chuckle to themselves.

A Daniel Arzani lookalike in a Canada shirt gave me a photo opportunity with the World Cup, which I gladly accepted, and the crowds were already growing even just under three hours before kick off. Now, the next task was to find the media entrance. This was no mean feat. None of the volunteers could tell me where it was. I was tempted to head through the spectator entrance, having to explain why I had a laptop and camera in my bag, and find it from the inside of the perimeter, but there was loads of time, so I made it my own personal goal to find the actual entrance. My goodness, it was one hell of a walk, perhaps 3km around the perimeter of the volunteers and security compounds, across the Heliport, asking the rare person I encountered who just blew out their cheeks as if to suggest it was miles away, around the car park, before finally arriving at the media entrance. Any normal media person would be coming by shuttle bus from the Main Media Centre at the QNCC, which would drop them right at the door. Using the spectator transport to the World Cup was totally counter-productive, and this wasn’t the only occasion. Note to self.

After the security gate, there was still a good walk to the media centre, up through an area that looked like the lawns of Versailles with fountains and ornate stone steps. This journey was never-ending.

With still ages to spare, it was time to sample some of this media centre’s food at my leisure; however every member of the media was thinking the same thing and the slow-moving queue for food was off-putting. The insistence on taking orders and checking the order, then relaying the order to the colleague next to the person taking the order, who would have heard the order anyway, was something that drove me crazy. It wasn’t just in the media centre, it was in the stadium outlets, the Fan Festival, the Main Media Centre, everywhere. Then, once the food was given to you, you’d have to check it and let them know that something was missing, maybe a bottle of water that had been taken from the fridge but not brought across, and the payment ritual was so slow, three different receipts and a long wait between receipt printing. Not that I needed receipts – no one was paying any expenses for me, I was the self-funded journalist – but they insisted on giving receipts. Even for a bottle of water, the transaction would take more than a minute. God help us if the Women’s World Cup is like this in July.

Anyway, rant over, first world problems I know, but the food was excellent. I sat and watched the conclusion of Netherlands v Ecuador over my chicken salad with creamy dressing, and felt as relaxed as I had done so far, with a decent meal in me. It was fascinating watching the English clique of media interacting; it was like a group of lads on holiday, but everyone was off and in position early. I made my way up to my seat, no desk this time, but I wasn’t going to be writing anything substantial for this one, so there was no need.

The position of the seat evoked thoughts of the long-standing members at the new Allianz Stadium who had endured a tough opening Sydney FC fixture in a monsoon, and had a glass partition in the way that was covered in rain; luckily here it only obscured the very corner of the field, but the security people were standing in the way anyway. Still, it was a great seat in a fantastic setting. The main pack of England fans were to my left, the USA fans to the right at the far end of the stadium, but in reality there were England fans everywhere, easily outnumbering their US counterparts.

The England fans had flags from every town and club in the country, and there was a big pullover flag that made its way across the England end, emblazoned Hope & Glory. It was close to 10pm but it was very warm, and there was no aircon coming from under the seats, this would be uncomfortable, but no more than a summer’s night in Sydney. The anthems were fantastic, both familiar tunes sung with passion around the stadium, both evoking emotion amongst the supporters around us.

The first five minutes were the most dull five minutes of the World Cup so far, but the England fans were in good voice. The USA fans responded with the “It’s called soccer…” chant, which is a classic, but it inspired a great break that saw Bukayo Saka pull the ball back for Harry Kane to smash the ball into the defender when he should have scored.

Up the other end, the colourful-haired Weston McKennie blazed over from a low cross when he should have done better, and Christian Pulisic hit the bar from a thumping shot just inside the area, the ball bouncing over and out of play. Raheem Sterling fired over from a good run down the left, then Mason Mount had a shot on the run well saved by Matt Turner. No goals at half-time, and the half-time entertainment plumbed new depths – one of the volunteers from the metro station roared “metro” and the crowd roared “this way” back to him. It went on a cringeable amount of time, before proceedings reverted to the standard half-time of mobile phones in the air in the darkness.

There were less pitch repairers tonight than usual, and there were no subs warming up on the field. We had a rendition of Sweet Caroline for the English fans, even though that’s for the women’s team, and the rest of the half-teme was a little glitchy, the videos stopping and starting on the big screens, Marcel Desailly telling us all about recycling.

Qatar’s version of corn hole. A little simplistic.

The second half was underway with a subdued crowd, maybe they were waiting for their receipts at the food outlets, and the USA were keeping Harry Maguire busy with a series of corners. The play was quite negative from the England team, choosing to go backwards a lot, and when they did get forward, the crosses into the box were aimless, or there was simply not enough support.

The crowd was not entertained. This would have been a great opportunity to start a Mexican Wave – this was precisely the type of game it was conceived for, and the action on the field looked like that infamous Simpsons episode about soccer. The introduction of Jack Grealish at least caused the USA to panic a little, and he attracted a lot of attention. The crowd of 68,463 was announced, only just shy of the official capacity. A late free-kick was whipped in by Luke Shaw in added time, John Stones appeared though to get in Harry Kane’s line of sight and Kane’s header was wide. The US won their own free-kick, barely any time to take it, but instead of launching the ball in for a final chance, Pulisic went short and the referee simply blew the whistle – what a waste!

This had been possibly the least entertaining game of the World Cup, for me at least. England barely had an attempt on goal, the referee didn’t use his cards once, and it was the USA who had the best efforts despite not really playing to their potential either. I was keen to get to the mixed zone, but there was no rush. When I arrived after several flights of stairs and a maze of corridors, the names were being announced.

No player photos allowed in the mixed zone – just journalists.

For England we would get Kieran Trippier, then Jordan Henderson, and I didn’t catch the third player. The door to the mixed zone was banging so loudly in the stiff breeze that whistled through the corridors – no one was doing anything about it. I listened in to the questions from the English media, and all I could think of was the sensational headlines that they would inevitably invent after this game. Trippier was asked if he heard the booing from the England fans. No, he didn’t. The next question was phrased in such a way that the journalist didn’t care if he heard booing or not, what did he think of the booing? I was a little annoyed. He didn’t hear the booing, right. I didn’t notice any booing. If you want a story about England fans booing, go ahead and write it. I’d love to know what the story eventually was from this line of questioning. “Trippier tight-lipped on England fans booing.”

The England man was professional and non-committal – “we didn’t lose and we didn’t concede. So it was a good result” – spoken like a true defender. Were there any concerns about the lack of creativity? “No. We have four points, so that’s a positive”

I caught Trippier as he went to leave, my only way in being that I was a Newcastle United fan and we shook hands. I confirmed that I hadn’t noticed any booing personally, and he shook his head and agreed. It was a lovely moment (for me), just chatting with one of my heroes. I’d been chanting his name at the Newcastle game only ten days ago. He was straight off to the changing rooms after that. Yunus Musah, the US player who plays for Valencia, was being interviewed in Spanish, so I moved on to Tyler Adams. He had spoken after the Wales game and was excellent. That’s why he’s captain I guess.

This time he was asked if he was happy. He was, but he’d be happier with the three points. Kudos to his team tonight, they stayed in a block and the performance was good. They had watched a bit of Wales v Iran, so they knew that recovery was vital and that it was important to be tuned in for the next game. This had been a three-year journey for his team, and they knew that limiting the space for the opposition stars was the key to stopping them. His dry sense of humour came through as he wrapped up the chat, and he strode on through to the changing rooms, leaving a happy US media pack.

I must have been in there for ages as it was very quiet outside. There was no way I was going back on the spectator shuttle bus – the media centre was nearby, so I went in there and asked where the shuttle buses were leaving from. Back through the lawns of Versailles and through the security gate, the shuttles were leaving from the car park opposite, and as usual there was confusion as no one knew which bus was going where. I followed the crowd, some people carrying huge bags of camera equipment, and we loaded onto a bus bound for the Main Media Centre.

Chad Gibson, photographer to the Socceroos, former A-League player, creative director and a member of a rival team in my seven-a-side comp on Thursday nights who have given us a thrashing on many occasions, was in the front seat so I sat next to him and we chatted all things football and our respective experiences in Paris. That made the journey to the QNCC go quickly, and I left Chad at the door of the media centre to catch the metro back to Hamad Hospital and to our apartment, which seemed to be the quicker option than getting an Uber.

Michelle had spent a fantastic day with some of our group, massage, dinner and drinks at the Warwick. I was still in football dreamland, but was looking on with a touch of envy at everyone taking a day off and having some down time. As if I’d need it…

Matches attended : 11 of 20
Matches missed : Netherlands v Ecuador, Qatar v Senegal

Next day >>>

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