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

This Monday morning was leisurely. We finally had some down time, relaxed over a lazy breakfast and made sure we were up to date with the games we’d missed the night before. Our one job today, before football was back on the agenda, was to pick up a couple of cases of beer from an aquaintence who lived in West Bay, the business end of town with high rise towers, stunning views and empty building lots. We decided to Uber this one; we found Uber to be incredibly cheap in Qatar. Maybe it was just because the distances were much shorter than back home, but getting around by Uber locally was usually a $10 fare and there was an abundance of cars. It also allowed us to see what was above ground, a little bit like being in Paris and taking the bus instead of the metro – it definitely allowed us to see much more.

We passed many fancy buildings and hotels along the way – the scare story had been that photographers would be arrested if they took photos of the wrong building, but from the safety of the car there seemed to be nothing to stop us. We didn’t know what we shouldn’t take photos of anyway, and it just felt like another one of those needless rumours that had been circulated to try and put people off visiting the country. Enjoying a beer in a luxury apartment overlooking the whole of Doha was a real pleasure, and we scored a couple of bottles of vodka too to help us on our way. Clinking into the lift along with a local family made us feel like we were doing something wrong, and loading the ‘contraband’ into the Uber to get it home felt like a covert smuggling operation. It was nothing of the sort of course, just a friend giving us a present, that’s all.

Stocking up a fridge with big cans of Heineken never felt so satisfying, but there was no time to dwell on our successful mission, we were running just about on time to make our first visit to Education City, a stadium even closer than Ahmed Bin Ali to our apartment and again with a dedicated metro station on our line. This was a game that we had bought tickets for and we were going purely as fans.

The metro was quite busy, but the proximity of the metro to the stadium meant that there wasn’t much walking; we simply had to walk around the perimeter of the athletics warm up field before we got to a long plaza that took us up to the stadium area. There was obviously some kind of light rail system here, the tracks were in the ground and the signage suggested so, but there was no sign of any trams today.

There was a drum rack en route, a few painted pallets with percussion instruments tied to it, along with drumsticks that were tied too close to the pallet to give any sort of oomph to the sound. Didn’t stop me. It was definitely one of the quirkier activations that we saw during the World Cup. The sun was starting to approach the hazy stage of the day, but it was a lovely warm day and the lighting was perfect for photos.

The security gates were a little more troublesome than usual. Michelle had her small bag of tricks searched thoroughly and there was fascination about anything that wasn’t familiar. Now inside the spectator zone, we had overcome the final hurdles that could possibly have delayed our entry and we were now free to have a good look around and marvel at the architecture of another new stadium.

The stadium was absolutely beautiful, a structure like a dome tent, with an outer cover that would protect from the elements. It was almost like two structures – one internal stadium without walls, and then an outer shell made up of triangles and diamonds. It was another marvel of engineering, regardless of the controversy that surrounded the construction process of all of the venues for this World Cup. We played the football tourist role to perfection, enjoying a buzzing atmosphere around the stadium forecourt as the sun started to drop even further, making our shadows longer than our bodies.

The VIP entrance had us intrigued. Who exactly would be in the VIP area? There was additional floral decoration and red carpets. Surely the experience of going to a game in that environment wouldn’t be the same as attending as the everyday fan in the stadium. One day I’ll experience it, but it will not be at a game where one of my teams are playing and it will be not be at the expense of a seat close to the action surrounded by real fans.

The area outside the stadium was colourful – the relevance of the blue dinosaurs supporting Ghana was lost on us, and the TV reporters were picking out the most colourful people to interview ahead of today’s game.

The mood outside was super friendly, and we were feeling relaxed, being well on time, and we eventually decided to head on in and find out where we’d be sitting. The gate we went through had an entry straight ahead, but we were instead directed over to the dreaded spiral walkway, and that meant another lengthy walk up to the top tier of seating.

Once inside, the green theme of the branding was a little different – there was much less FIFA purple on display. The stadium was fantastic, and we found our seats overlooking the Korea fans, who stood out in their red shirts. The sun was setting, we knew it was warm outside, but in the stadium, the temperature went from 30 to high teens and there was a crisp air pumping out of the aircon vents under our seats. So much so that it was the ideal spot to place a Bud Zero to keep it ice cold.

The stadium was filling up, and the pre-game show took on its now thoroughly familiar pattern, even if the inflatable World Cup did appear from a different corner to usual. The John Newman song Love Me Again blasted out at T-12 minutes. The fans were asked to use their phone flashlights at T-10 and the presenters pumping up the crowd gave us the Now Is All rally cry. It wasn’t dark enough for the flashlights. At T-7, the players walked out once the pyrotechnics had finished, to the tune of Arhbo (On y va here we go – good luck finding that one in the future, but it will instantly make you think of Qatar 2022), then we had the national anthems. At T-3, the World Cup, the flags and the signage was taken off the field, we had Seven Nation Army briefly, before Dreamers by BTS and an impeccable countdown to kick off. I remember listening to the FIFA soundtrack prior to the tournament and couldn’t really get enthused, but now that we had heard the songs a hundred times over, we knew exactly where we were and they were as catchy as could be.

This game promised to be an exciting match up. Ghana had been narrowly defeated by Portugal, while Korea had gone very close to getting the three points against Uruguay. Ghana would be going for the win, and we were genuinely excited to see what transpired.

Ghana boasted familiar names in Jordan and Andre Ayew, current and former Premier League players, Daniel Amartey from Leicester and Tariq Lamptey from Brighton. Son Heung-Min was the only familiar name for Korea, the Spurs attacker a staple of many a Fantasy Premier League team thanks to his partnership with Harry Kane. The entire Korea defence was made up with Kims, which was quite easy to remember, but would make a commentator’s life a little tricky.

Korea seemed to be toying with Ghana in the early stages – they had the majority of the ball and were making their opponents battle to get anywhere near the ball. It was corner after corner for the Koreans, but there was no breakthrough. It was a massive shock then when a corner from the left for Ghana was launched into the box, swinging in towards goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu. The heads went up, and there were three Ghanaian players completely unmarked aftet the Korean defenders had given up; they just had to work out who would smash the ball in, and it was defender Mohammed Salisou with the close range finish. The celebrations went on in front of the Korean fans who were stunned, but the spectre of VAR was hanging over us and there was something being checked. We didn’t know what it was, but it took a hell of a long time, maybe three minutes, before the game could contiue and the goal stood.

Korea were looking a little ragged at this point, and Ghana had the impetus. Another cross from Jordan Ayew, who was given all the time in the world to size up his delivery, was pinpoint on to the head of Mohammed Kudus and he simply had to get any sort of touch on the header and the ball bounced in with Seung-yeu clutching at thin air. Again the celebrations happened down below us and in front of the Korea fans. This was a major event in world football we were witnessing, Ghana now in a glorious two-goal lead and looking good for more. Partey was unlucky to see his header deflected over deep into injury time and there was little to cheer for the many Korea fans clad in red.

With half time upon us, it was time to get moving – Michelle was wearing my shirt as it was so cold, and the air conditioning vents were pumping out ice-cold air that wasn’t really needed. The organisers must have realised, as the temperatures almost instantaneously returned to normal after we had gone in search of our burger and Bud Zero combo. The football had been fabulous entertainment again – every game was giving us superb drama and going into the game with the right knowledge of who needed what result was key to enjoying the sub-plots.

The second half delivered another amazing 45 minutes of football. There didn’t seem to be anything on down the Korea left, again in front of us, when substitute Lee Kang-in stole the ball from Lamptey. His perfect cross found Cho Gue-sung, who bravely put his head to the ball despite the attention of a defender to give Lawrence Ati-Zigi no chance. The celebration was downplayed by the goalscorer, but the fans were going crazy down below us. We had been spoilt where we were sitting, all of the goals down below us, and we had the perfect view of the goals and the celebrations.

Korea were fighting back, and not long after, defender Kim Jinsu just kept the ball in again down the left, and managed to loft in a high cross to the far post. It looked food and drink to the defenders, but in came Cho to leap high in the air above Gideon Mensah to power in a shock header to bring the scores level. The scenes were crazy. The badly designed section where the Korea fans were had a walkway in front of it, and one ecstatic fan decided it was a good idea to stand up where the security were. He was wrestled back into his bay by his fellow Korea fans and a security guard, but his joy and elation was totally understandable.

More was to come though, and finally we had a goal up the other end, and it was Ghana this time who regained the lead in fortunate circumstances. They worked the ball well up the left, Mensah crossed perfectly for striker Inaki Williams who completely missed the ball for what looked like a routine finish from twelve yards. Luckily for him and for Ghana, the ball rolled on to Kudus who fired left-footed under the keeper for an exhilarating third goal to put the African team back in the lead.

The final twenty minutes of the game were nerve-wracking for everyone. The attendance of 43,983 was less than a thousand shy of capacity and it seemed about right. Son should have scored and repeated Williams’ trick of missing the ball completely, but this time the follow up from Jinsu was over the bar. The pressure was intense on the Ghana goal, but there was always that chance of the breakaway goal. There were a massive ten minutes of added time, the new directive from head of referees Pierluigi Collina being used to the maximum here, and Cho was slipped in by Jinsu only for Ati-Zigi to bat his shot away at the near post. The onslaught was brought to an end by the referee as Korea tried to take one last corner, and the Ghana players’ arms went up in celebration, the Koreans dropping to their knees in disbelief and exhaustion. What a game, what a thriller, and it teed up the group perfectly, giving everyone a chance of qualifying in the final group stage game.

The Korean players showed their appreciation to their fans who had been lively throughout. We stayed behind to soak up as much atmosphere as possible, the World Cup drug coursing through our veins after another dramatic match. Outside on the stadium forecourt the Ghana fans were celebrating, and we retraced our steps to where we had come in, but were stopped abruptly as we started to circumnavigate the athletics warm-up field. We were trapped.

The minor inconvenience of a short wait turned into a long wait, and the sight of people being let in front of us from a different direction was infuriating. We had been in the queue, moving at a snail’s pace for an hour. Parents with young kids were struggling, I had somewhere to be that wasn’t going to wait, although the start time for the FA hosted drinks in West Bay had been pushed back due to changes in the media timetable during the day. The massive queue was eventually trickled through in single file to the metro, after an hour and a half of waiting. In retrospect we could have walked in a different direction and caught an Uber, or walked to the next metro station which wasn’t too far, but we were effectively trapped in that queue with nowhere to go.

This was the first time I felt that the crowd management had really let us down, and we were totally helpless. Yes, the Ahmed Bin Ali crowd management wasn’t forgiving and the queues for the metro after the game at other stadiums were slow moving, but this one had been done incorrectly and the older people, the families and the smaller in stature were jostled and pushed in this mosh-pit of a queue that could easily have gone wrong. Had there been alcohol in the mix, this would have gone really badly, and we would have had people pissing everywhere too. We can be thankful for that.

I left Michelle at Hamad Hospital – there was a fridge full of booze and some willing participants in our apartment, so she was happy to go back and check out what everyone else was doing. I continued on and made my way to the Dusit, firstly finding I was in the wrong hotel and then finally arriving at the other Dusit and getting to the 48th floor where the who’s who of Australian football media was congregated around the bar. Most people were set up for the night, the beers were flowing, but a few of us were heading on to Lusail Stadium to catch the 10pm game. I met James Johnson and we shared a few words before I finally met Ben O’Niell, who I had talked with at the very start of this process to see if accreditation was possible. That was a lovely moment, and I felt I owed him a debt of gratitude for where I was right at that moment.

There was only time for one drink before a group of us headed down the lift and to the foyer. There were those taking an Uber, and there was myself and Rafeq Alokaby, a journalist for the Arab newspapers in Australia amongst other projects, who were determined to do it the quickest way possible. That meant running. It was a race against time, a race to see if we could make kick off, that was in 45 minutes. After being careful not to get run over at the big boulevards, finding the metro station and negotiating the winding crowd management route, we ran down to get on the metro. Time was ticking. It was hot and sticky, we were both glowing. It was quite a squeeze to get on, but once we were off at Lusail, I knew the route. The only picture I took in the metro was of a centurion-like character, 18 minutes from kick-off. Rafeq was delighted to find out abot the now legendary shortcut through to the security gate for media, and we bypassed the media centre and, still running, made our way up to the media entrance and up the flights of stairs to the tribune.

I reached my media seat just as the national anthems got underway, and the stadium was buzzing, the Portugese fans in red to our left and the sky-blue shirts of the Uruguay fans to my right. I was dripping with sweat and uncomfortable in my sweaty clothes, but I was delighted to have made it, and what a game to be rewarded with! Cristiano Ronaldo was on the sideline adjusting his shirt, and all the photographers, who were meant to be getting into position for the game, were concentrating on the Portugese news-magnet. The kick off was met with a roar, the first touch for Portugal and the roar got louder still.

Uruguay were proving tougher in the tackle than their opponents, the Portugese players rolling around on the floor at the slightest touch, Joao Felix I’m looking at you, which wasn’t convincing the officials or the fans. Rodrigo Bentancur took it too far though with only five minutes gone and picked up a yellow card for a crude challenge on Ruben Dias. He’d have to be careful now. Portugal looked the most composed, Ronaldo got a massive roar for some ostentatious step-overs. Uruguay though had the best chance of the half when Bentancur picked up the ball in midfield and romped forward. Just as he looked to lay the ball off to a teammate, he shimmied and burst through the defence, one-on-one with goalkeeper Diogo Costa, but could only hit the ball straight at him. The midifielder’s arms in the air in frustration told the story.

Uruguay ended the half with another chance, Mathias Olivera feeding a great ball in that just went too far in front of the lunging boots. Goalless at half time was about right. I was straight out to get a water; remembering that they were QAR10 here and you couldn’t keep the lid as opposed to QAR3 in the media centre. I was still using my visa prepaid card, with no idea how much was still on it, but it worked and I’d use it again until it finally ran out. The water was very welcome. After running here after throwing down a beer, I had one hell of a thirst to quench.

Something would have to give in the this second half. Ronaldo was smashed to the ground not long after the game restarted, then Ruben Neves was clipped and stayed down for a long time. As soon as he was back in play after a substantial delay, we had the unthinkable – a pitch invader with a rainbow flag. By the time I’d noticed, he was over on the far side, where he was wrestled to the ground by two security guards and then joined by some more, who picked him up and frog-marched him off the field. I’m sure the TV cameras would have been hastily diverted from that, but for those in the stadium it was a powerful moment – anyone caught doing anything like that was widely believed to be in serious trouble. There was that rumour mill again, the one that had blighted the lead up to the tournament and made it difficult to know what we were walking into in Qatar.

That break in play served to galvanise the Portugese. Joao Felix hit the side netting after being freed by Bruno Fernandes, before the moment we’d all been waiting for. Fernandes seemed to be heading into a corner, but checked back and delivered a perfect cross. Ronaldo had been played on by the defender and leapt at the ball, enough to put off Sergio Rochet in the Uruguay goal, and the ball bounced into the net. Ronaldo raced away to celebrate with his team, and he seemed to be claiming the goal.

Ronaldo was caught from behind, whether or not he was or not is open to debate, as he shot and there were histrionics. Edison Cavani missed his shot and should have done better for Uruguay, and the game opened up completely with 20 minutes to go. Substitute Facundo Pellistri broke through and got lucky when the ball came back to him. He squared the ball to fellow sub Maxi Gomez, whose shot from the edge of the area hit the post with Costa beaten.

The crowd of 88,668 was more or less a sell-out tonight, there were a few spare seats in the hospitality section. Uruguay were hunting an equaliser, and Luis Suarez missed a golden opportunity after his own team’s free kick routine went wrong. There was still time though. The atmosphere in the stadium had gone a little south; remembering the excitement and noise of the Argentina and Brazil games here, it was a little flat now.

Time was running out when Bruno Fernandes slipped the ball though the legs of Jose Gimenez on the edge of the area but the ball was lost. There was a shout for a handball by Fernandes which the referee ignored. Moments later the referee was called over to his screen for a debate and he emerged and took his time, but pointed to the spot. This looked incredibly soft. Gimenez must have hit the ball with his hand on the way down, but it was totally accidental. How on earth this was a penalty was beyond me and it was a farcical way to end the game. Up stepped Fernandes himself to roll the ball into the net after his annoying stop-start run-up and the game was won.

The Portugal fans enjoyed the Olés as the game entered the closing stages. There was still time for a late chance to complete the hat-trick for Fernandes too, as Rafael Leao cut the ball back from the byline and the shot canoned off the post. The ten minutes of added time was brought to a close and Portugal had qualified for the round of 16 with two wins from two. Uruguay would now need to win against Ghana in their final group game and hope that today’s opponents were concentrating on beating Korea. It was set up beautifully for more drama, but tonight was over and despite a spirited performance from Uruguay and a lot more brawn than brains, they were second best to the one-man show that was Bruno Fernandes.

The Portugal fans were in good voice outside the stadium; I was half expecting to be heading out to a bar, but the party was happening back at the apartment, the vodka had been cracked and it was game on. It was all quiet though when I arrived back home, the promise of the door being open not quite true and Michelle had to sleep walk to the door to let me in. And after a shower to get the sweat off, it was straight to bed. Tomorrow was the first day of the final round of group stage games and that meant we had most of the day to do something other than football, with all games kicking off now from 6pm. The holiday would commence! It was time for some sightseeing!

Matches attended : 17 of 32
Matches missed : Cameroon v Serbia, Brazil v Switzerland

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