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

After a late night following the opening ceremony, rousing for the next day was always going to be slow. Thankfully, with the opening ceremony being pushed back a day, there were no games until 4pm, so we decided to make this the day when we would check in to our Fanatics accomodation in Al Wakra – after all this was our original booking, and we knew that the Socceroos game the next day was in Al Wakra. We took the metro to the bottom end of the red line and took an Uber the rest of the way, through suburban streets that were just like those around us near Hamad Hospital. We met up with Ben from the Fanatics and picked up our keys ready to stay over the following night. The accommodation was very modern and clean, but the location was a little detached from all the action, and the shuttle bus back to the station took ages. We’d stay over after the France game and then see how things went after that.

We made it back to our original apartment in good time to set off to the Khalifa International Stadium, the original national stadium of Qatar where England were playing Iran. I was taking advantage of my first media ticket of the tournament for this one, and had secured a pass for the mixed zone after the game too, which was exciting me probably more than the game itself. Michelle had scored a ticket through our group’s ticket guru Oscar, but with the FIFA ticketing app having a few glitches, hundreds of fans were left outside the stadium queuing for assistance at a window as the game kicked off. The fans were all eventually let in, but it was a black mark against this digital ticket scenario that was the bane of every non-technical supporter.

The digital vs paper ticket debate is an interesting one. With the main ticket-holder of a group of tickets unable to offload their ticket via any electronic means, it meant that there was a lot of trust involved when buying and selling tickets. You would either need to trust the person you are buying from to do the right thing – so difficult in this age of internet scammers – or you would have to meet the seller at the gate to make sure that the transaction was legitimate and that you were actually getting a ticket that worked at the gate. As a main ticket seller, off-loading one of your group’s tickets was easy – it could be done on the resale platform for a small fee, but the whole process, especially for those less than savvy with apps and websites, was daunting. It was great to know that officially there was no actual touting going on, no sellers offering tickets at twice the price outside the stadium, but in practice this was still taking place. What’s more, the reliance on digital tickets meant a reliance on mobile phones. If yours is anything like mine, it is drained of battery power towards the end of the day, and initially there was a ban on taking power banks into the stadium. We heard that it was relaxed after pleas from the public, but if your mobile phone was dead, you couldn’t get into the stadium. And there was nowhere to charge a mobile phone in the stadium either – note to future organisers of World Cups – if you’re relying on mobile phones, make it easier for the fans to keep those phones charged up!

The journey to the Khalifa stadium (or Wiz Khalifa as it was to be known from here) was colourful – instead of catching the metro to the central hub of Msheireb and then back out again, we tried a bit of sightseeing by foot through the suburb of Al Saad, eventually finding Al Saad metro station which was only four stops from Sport City and the Khalifa Stadium.

The one thing that struck me was the amount of unfinished construction, and in fact the amount of empty lots that had absolutely nothing on them. The general feeling was that the World Cup was simply a small job in a massive project that could take decades to come to fruition, the whole of Qatar pausing perhaps for a few weeks before getting back on with the task of building this mega-city from the ground up.

The streets of Al Saad had a bit of a Parisian feel about them, kids were playing in the streets, people were going about their business as if the World Cup wasn’t even on. It took a good twenty minutes to walk to Al Saad metro station, where the livery associated with the World Cup gave a feeling of familiarity and safety. As with all venues associated with the tournament, the metro station had a specific entrance that you had to walk in a snake-like queue to get to, even though there was absolutely no one there. Once on the metro, there were plenty of fans of both countries, the English fans coming straight from the pub, or in the case of our carriage at the end of the train, a group of English school teachers based in Qatar were taking advantage of the schools having broken up for Christmas six weeks early to enjoy the World Cup.

The media pass extension allowed me to take photos anywhere apart from on the field. Priceless!

Arriving at Sport City stadium, there was a lot of noise. The England fans were singing away, while the Iranian fans had their drums and whistles and were making an almighty hypnotic din. I left Michelle to try and work out how being a member of accredited media with a media ticket worked, and had to walk a good distance away from the stadium against all the foot traffic to find the media entrance. The yellow livery would be the common denominator, and it was the same set up as the spectator entrance, bags scanned and everything out of pockets, but they were happy to let through media equipment such as laptops and cameras.

Inside the media centre at Khalifa Stadium

The media centre was situated in a compound next to the stadium forecourt and had many powered desks to log in and do work, there was a cafe and a breakout room, as well as self-serve kiosks where you would print out the next day’s media tickets that were only available the day before. It would become a habit, as soon as entering a media centre, print out the next day’s media tickets. Sometimes you would get a desk near the halfway line, other times you would get a seat in a section intermingled with fans. It was pot luck and you didn’t know until you printed your tickets.

This game I was assigned a seat to the left of the desks, and next to fans of both teams. Khalifa Stadium was one of the trickier venues to negotiate, and in these early days of the tournament, none of the volunteers knew where the media entrance was. Turns out it was tucked around a corner and you would then see the yellow media signs. The lifts weren’t big enough to take everyone up, luckily there were stairs up to the tribune level and it was pretty straightforward after that. I’m pretty sure there was still no food available, although that was the last thing on my mind; I do remember taking note that a bottle of water in the media centre cost QAR3, while in the stadium it cost QAR10 and they wouldn’t let you keep the lid. Water was good to have. It was hot, but not unbearably so.

Impressive stadium, obviously built for athletics too. Lots of empty seats at the beginning of the game.

I had intended writing a match report for this one, but to be honest there was no expectation, and the fact I didn’t get a desk led me to simply make notes on my laptop, and then I wrote up the majority of the first half as a report at half-time, with a view to completing it later. I just found that unfinished report now and it is helping me remember the game!

The pre-game fireworks were lost a little in the sunshine, but the wall of noise that greeted the national anthems was terrific. This was the first time I’d sung ‘God save the King’ and it definitely seemed a little unusual – ‘…send him victorious…’, but when the Iranian anthem started, the noise was unbelievable, like the Socceroos v Uruguay back in 2005. It was difficult to tell who was jeering and whistling through it, but it turned out to be the Iran fans, in protest at various political matters in their homeland.

The customary St George flags showing where the England fans should have been at kick off

The Iran players were on their knees in a circle in prayer pre-game, but it didn’t help their goalkeeper – not three minutes into the game he came out to collect a ball and collided with his defender and was left on the floor for an extended period. When he went down again soon after and had to be replaced, the stuffing had been knocked out of the game completely – all the pregame adrenaline and expectation was curtailed and the game almost had to start again a good ten minutes later.

The tough-tackling Iran team was matching it with England and it was an exciting first half. England attacked with purpose and Iran tried the counter-attack; it was very open and there were numerous free-kicks for England for silly fouls that would eventually add up.

England raced into a three-goal lead. Jude Bellingham rose to place a lovely header into the corner of the net from a deft cross from the left. A corner from the same side was headed down by Harry Maguire, who had earned jeers earlier when his name was read out pregame, and Bukayo Saka rifled the ball into the top corner for two. The third took a little time coming, deep into the 14 minutes of added time, and this time it was a superb cross from the right that was helped into the net by Raheem Sterling with an improvised finish. The England fans sang “Are you Scotland in disguise” and the Iran players started to get angry. They did have an amazing chance just before the break, but the Hollywood effort after a quick break was wild when a cool head could have tucked the ball into the net with ease.

Quadruple sub – why not eh?

The second half took a while to get going and the crowd was quite subdued. Iran weren’t getting any of the calls from the referees and they were being bullied off the ball. The next goal went to England, and it was a cracker. Sterling ran riot in midfield to open up the defence and Saka took his time with plenty of options around him to place a lovely shot past the stranded keeper for 4-0. The crowd was back to life.

Iran pulled one back soon after, Mehdi Taremi ghosted onto a lovely though ball to hammer his shot in off the bar as England looked to have gone to sleep. A quadruple substitution then caused some angst. Eric Dier was not allowed to go on despite Maguire already being off the field, but the officials eventually got it right. Marcus Rashford had been on the field for less than a minute when he raced onto a Harry Kane pass, jinked inside and finished coolly to make it 5-1. The England fans sang ‘Don’t take me home’, there was a chill in the air, unbelievably given the temperatures outside the stadium, and all was well in the England camp.

Now at this point, with less than ten minutes to go, I took the advice of the briefing the day before and left my seat to go and find the mixed zone. I’m never happy to leave a game before the end, but that was how it was sold to us. The challenge now was to find the mixed zone. I had remembered where it was, but I wasn’t allowed through a door that would get me there and instead I was sent outside into the stadium forecourt. A fellow journalist from Spain was there doing the same thing, and we were asking every volunteer, who either didn’t know or just lazily sent us in the wrong direction. I left the Spanish journalist as he ran in totally the opposite direction, following the instructions of a volunteer, then I was directed to walk out and around a huge barricaded area, much to my disbelief and annoyance. This was honestly one of the most frustrating things I have ever experienced, no one being able to tell me how to get to the mixed zone, let alone understand what it was.

I was running by now. There were cheers from the stadium, which I expected to be the final whistle, and I had visions of the players having already gone through the mixed zone. I eventually got back to where I had come in originally to the stadium, about five metres from where I had been prevented from going though a doorway, and found the mixed zone doorway that took me down into a room that was already filled with television cameras and reporters. TVs on the wall were showing the game that was still going ahead. This would be the last time I would race to the mixed zone before the end of the game; the players had to get through the TV cameras first anyway before they got to the written media.

This is a mixed zone. One side for TV, the other side for the journalists.

Masks were mandatory in the media zone, the England camp enforcing that, and to be honest it was a good precaution. I was chatting to an English lady who worked for FIFA who was in charge of the mixed zone, and she would talk in fluent French to her French colleagues then in English to me – turns out her parents were teachers who moved to France and she grew up there. Her role seemed to be to keep the journalists out of the TV area and she did it well.

The game had finished now, after a lot of added time and one more goal a-piece from each side, but the players still didn’t appear for some time. When they did, it was a bit chaotic. The journalists all pounced, wielding their dictaphones and mobiles to record what the player was saying. This was a reconnaissance mission for myself, just to work out how this was all meant to play out, and it looked as though the main focus was on the TV crews, and the players then simply strode through the journalists and didn’t really engage. I could see that you would need to be forceful to get your question out, or devious and follow the player as they were walking and hope to get in their ear. In the end I simply gave Callum Wilson a handshake and wished him well as a Newcastle United fan – after all I’d been at St James Park to see him play the Saturday before and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I also offered “well played” to Calvin Phillips who wasn’t part of the mixed zone or the team this evening, meaning “well played to the team”, and he responded “I didn’t play, mate,” which made us both laugh.

I now knew what to expect in a mixed zone, and that would give me some knowledge to take into the next one. Apparently all the players came through the mixed zone after they had got changed before getting back on the team coach, but that would have meant waiting around for an hour, so I was out of there and on to the next game. Leaving the stadium, there were still a lot of people around, and I decided to get the metro instead of the media shuttle, which probably would have already gone to the next game, Wales up against the USA.

The Fan Zone was already finished, but there were still a lot of people around

The metro was absolutely packed all the way for this one – I did the whole journey to Msheireb and then back out on the green line to the Mall of Qatar and it was heaving the whole way. Now that the games were in full swing, we would see the capacity of the public transport tested.

Arriving at the Al Riffa Mall of Qatar metro, this was one of the stadiums that was very accessible – after negotiating the walkways from platform to the outside world, walking out into the night, the stadium was right there in front of you. The walking route to the right was direct and a lot of people were stopping to take photos of the stadium all lit up. To the left of it was a massive labyrinth of barricades that would be used to funnel the masses back onto the metro after the game, the big difference being that everyone would want to get on the metro at the same time. A line of volunteers were directing people ahead, avoiding the closest spectator entrance, but there was a gap in the line of volunteers and I walked through it and started the search for the media entrance.

Again, it wasn’t easy. In the end, after asking many volunteers, I was guided to the priority lane to get through the security check and then had a long walk to get to the media centre that was slightly away and behind the stadium, walking through a grass area that was being used as the perfect spot for live crosses for TV reporters, with the glowing lights of the stadium behind. Armed with a reasonably priced bottle of water I was back across to the stadium, again having trouble finding the media entrance that was tucked away around a corner behind a fire truck, but I was up in the tribune well before kick off, and had the luxury of a desk this time, next to the ABC crew of Sam and Matt.

First time in the media tribune with a desk. I get it. You can tap out a match report as you go.

The stadium filled up with fans, the Welsh to the right in a big bank of red shirts against the red seats, the USA fans behind the other goal to our left and also a big pocket to our immediate right. The sprinklers were on and there was one volunteer per sprinkler, charged with maximising the coverage of the spray. The pregame was now becoming a tradition, with the inflatable world cup being walked out, to sit on the big circular flag and the emblems of the two nations being unfurled. The sight of two banks of photographers being coralled like wild horses with a long rope was to become one of the most fascinating spectacles, the photographers being walked to the edge of the tunnel to be in position for the entrance of the players.

To say that the anthems were spine-tingling would be totally accurate. Everyone knows the US national anthem, at least the tune, and everyone was singing along, but when it came to the Welsh anthem, the fans belted out the unfamiliar song. The anthem has moments that are like a battle cry, the fans sang it with so much passion and it brought a tear to the eye of the most hardened football person. What a way to get ready for battle!

Having a desk for the game was great. There was a monitor that showed different things to what was being shown on the big screens and to what you could see, so you essentially had three different views of the same game, and if you had scanned the QR code on the wall on the way in, you had the teamsheets on your phone ready to go. There was no commentary to help with unfamiliar players; hey, that was your job to know the players after all!

The now-familiar pre-game rituals were complete, the flags and the trophy removed from the field, the big FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 letters carried off in the correct order, and “Let’s get down to business” blasting around the stadium in preparation for the countdown. The countdown wasn’t quite right for this one… 10, 9, 8, 10, 9, 8, 7 went the count, but they got to 0 on kick off so all was saved. There was a massive shout of USA, USA coming from the section right next to us and from the end of the stadium, and the US players responded with a robust opening to the game. The tackles were fierce and the headers were solid, and the US fashioned the first good chance, Timothy Weah raiding down the right. His cross was instinctively headed by Wales defender Joe Rodon straight at his goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey who reacted to block the ball, and from the next phase of play a near post header hit the post and Wales survived. It was one-way traffic.

Weston McKennie, the US midfielder with his red, white and blue hair colouring, went into the book for leaving a foot in, and the referee warned the USA players on more than one occasion for their over-eagerness in the tackle. The Welsh fans erupted in hymn on the half hour and it was a thing of beauty. The American fans responded with a viking clap with USA instead of the usual grunt. The US were by far the better team, and it was no surprise when they took the lead, Weah latching on to a beautiful run and pass and finishing with a cool prod into the corner of the net. Yes, that surname is familiar – in my younger years I spent two years in Paris and was often at the Parc des Princes where George Weah played for PSG. He was an absolute legend and it was a surprise to see his son playing for a different country – especially when his father was the president of Liberia!

Wales were under fire here, and when Neco Williams swept a cross-field pass into touch, the gulf in class between the two teams began to show. USA were efficient with the ball, if not as cut-throat as they needed to be, and were dominating possession. Half-time came at the right time for Wales and they could regroup and build on the good work of their defence, who were performing heroics.

Qatar must have zero unemployment. How many ground staff? No space to warm up for the subs.

The second half started with Wales looking way more controlled, and with giant striker and cult hero Kieffer Moore on the field, anything could happen. They had a great chance from a free kick – the ball was half cleared and Ben Davies launched himself at the ball, but the bullet header was touched over by the flying Matt Turner. Moore should have scored with a free header from the resulting corner, but instead headed over, and Wales were inching closer to an equaliser. The game had opened up and it was end-to-end stuff.

The equaliser did come and it was through persistence and the quick thinking of sub Brennan Johnson. He seemed to have picked up the ball before it crossed the line to take a quick throw, but play went on, and Aaron Ramsey pulled the ball back to superstar Gareth Bale, who was crunched from behind by a stupid tackle by defender Walker Zimmerman. It was a stonewall penalty, with ten minutes left on the clock. What an opportunity for Wales. Bale stepped up himself, Turner got a hand to it, but the power took it into the corner of the net for a deserved equaliser. The last ten minutes were thrilling, USA were wobbling, there was panic, former NUFC favourite De Andre Yedlin smashed the ball out of play in frustration. Moore’s expert back heel set Williams away for a good chance, but he drilled straight at Turner, the Welsh fans gave us a rousing hymn on 90 minutes, and there were an additional 9 minutes to play, added on for an injury to a US player earlier in the half. The problem in the stadium is that no one knows how far through the additional time we are, and with big chunks of time being added, fans had to remember to set a stop watch on 90 minutes to have any chance of knowing.

The final whistle was met with relief from both sets of players and fans, especially the US players after Bale had been hauled down on the charge in the last action of the game. This result would keep them both in with a great chance of progressing; given England’s big win, they would be the team to catch and then it would be a shoot-out for second. I took my time this time to head down to the mixed zone, and there was no rush. The players were nowhere near coming through. We got some good insight from Mat Turner, the US keeper who was instantly beseiged by reporters – luckily he’s really tall so we could still see him when he spoke. Timothy Weah gave a few words, then we had the Welsh trio of Roberts, Hennessey and Rodon. They were quite evasive to the written media. I asked Hennessey if he had any words for his England counterparts ahead of the next round of games to which he just smiled but Hennessey and Rodon both stopped to praise their team’s performance with a few brief sentences. The mixed zone was turning out to be a little low in content, but the journalists were all there just for that one key sentence to take into their match report to give it an extra zing. We’d see more of that as the tournament continued.

Any thoughts of having missed the foot traffic to get on the metro were dashed; there were so many people in the long snaking queue. Luckily a US couple from New York and their two young kids were in a chatty mood and the two kids peppered me with questions when I mentioned I was from Australia. It helped while away a good half hour in the queue before we finally made it into the metro station and up onto the platform.

Luckily Hamad Hospital was only a short ride on the metro, and I had popped into the local Lulu supermarket just before 2am closing to get the remnants from the hot food counter. I don’t know about anyone else, but doing food shopping in a foreign country is always really interesting. This one was fascinating, just to see what was different on the shelves. There was plenty of fresh food, and you had to get it weighed by a member of staff, just like in the old days. There was a whole wall of cereal choices from around the world, and a serve-yourself section for dried cooking ingredients of all types. Given the scope of the cereal aisle, milk strangely wasn’t a big consumer item, and you had to go through the different types to find a normal full fat version. The check-out process was almost exactly the same, albeit with free plastic bags, and everyone was super-helpful.

The dried up chicken skewers and the rice dish constituted the one big meal of the day to complement the potato chips, seemingly the only thing on the menu in the stadium to date. A catch up with Michelle and our flatmates over this midnight feast and a replay of one of the games on TV, and that was the end of day two. I didn’t see any highlights of the Senegal v Netherlands game, but I was sitting on three games out of four from two days in Qatar and feeling very fulfilled. In fact, I’m going to watch those highlights now; I don’t think I’ve seen them yet!

Matches attended : 3 of 4
Matches missed : Senegal v Netherlands

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