A 1pm kick off sounds like a terrific time for a football game. When you get to bed at 4am full of takeaway and grog and you’re completely spent after a solid week of World Cup football, that puts a different spin on it. We should have been out of the door at 11am, but it was closer to midday when we finally left the apartment. The journey to Ahmed Bin Ali stadium was a tried and tested route though, and we knew that, whilst we’d left it hopelessly late, we would be at the stadium in plenty of time. The only unknown factor was the gate that we would be directed to, and that could make all the difference. Today was our ‘double game day’, no media tickets, only fan tickets and we were both looking forward to doing what we enjoy doing the most.
Predictably, our late arrival at the metro meant we were directed to that damned gate over a kilometre in the wrong direction, and that also meant a long queue to get through the security gates and back into the internal stadium area. It was 1pm and we still hadn’t got through the queue. No wonder some of the games looked half-capacity at kick off, this was the way the Qataris rewarded late arrivals – by making you even later. There is something to be said for that system, and it should discourage fans from doing it again! We had to be honest with ourselves though; after the first round of group stage games, this one was expected to be just as one-sided, with Costa Rica coming off a 7-0 hammering against Spain and Japan having defeated Germany in a superb encounter. Surely we’d see more of the same and a comfortable Japan victory to set them up for top spot in group E.
We didn’t rush. We were in a relaxed mood after yesterday’s hi-octane party mode, and stopped to take photos along the way even though the game was already underway. Finding our gate, we joined the shortest queues and entered through neighbouring turnstiles. I scanned my ticket and went through. Michelle was still at the gate, scanning her ticket. Again and again. The sun was beaming in from behind, making the area quite glary, and whatever she tried, the ticket reader would not recognise the ticket on the phone. The volunteers on the gate all had a go, scanning on each of five or six gates, each time unable to get any sort of response. The screen brightness was at max, the ticket was there to read manually, and in the absence of anyone in authority, the volunteers could only try and try again, cupping their hands around the phone, scanning from a few centimetres away and moving it around. We were now 15 minutes into the game and were almost the last people at the gate, standing together either side of a low fence that could easily be hurdled. Needless to say we were getting a little annoyed. Michelle could have stepped over or pushed through the gate, but the crowd of volunteers were adamant. We were pleading with them to just let her in.
Finally, one of the gates registered and we were on our way, but that was an extremely frustrating way to enter the stadium and added to our lateness. It was now 20 minutes into the game, but thankfully there was no score. We took our seats in the end above where the Welsh fans had been for their opening game and where the Iran fans had been for their second game, and there were quite a few spaces. The Costa Rica fans were down below us in the corner and up at our level there was another band of red shirts. At the far end there were two pockets of Japan fans, one at each side of the end, and they were in good voice. There had been no goals, but we had heard some moments where the crowd volume increased dramatically, so there had obviously been some action, and it was most likely to have been from the Japanese team.
The first few minutes we saw were all Japan, but the intensity seemed to drop in the warm sun and Costa Rica started to see a little more of the ball. Joel Campbell, a player familiar to Premier League fans after his time at Arsenal, managed to get a shot away, but it was tamely over the bar with little time to think about it. The teams traded yellow cards, firstly a robust challenge from a Costa Rica’ player’s Anthony Contreras, and then a harsh yellow for Japan’s Miki Yamane, and the play became a little scrappy, Los Ticos starting to get possession and at least keep the ball off their opponents for short periods. The half-time came quickly – it tends to do that when you join the action with 20 minutes already gone – and we grabbed our now traditional combo meal of a burger, Bud Zero and bottle of water, the queues as ferocious as ever.
Japan came out firing in the early stages of the second half. Surely their coach would have put a rocket up them after they had failed to trouble highly-rated goalkeeper, Keylor Navas. Navas was though called straight into action with a flying save to deny Hidemasa Morita after some clever running in midfield, and soon after Wataro Endo and fresh sub Takuma Asano had efforts cleared away. This was more like it.
A free kick from Yuki Soma after Endo had been sliced down on the edge of the area was wasted, before Junya Ito looked to have broken through only to be cynically pulled back by a Costa Rica defender, who was very lucky to stay on the field. From my extensive knowledge of refereeing over 45s games in the NWSFRA, I would have given that one a red card to be honest, as it was just outside the area, he was clean through and there was no attempt to play the ball. The free kick was wasted, fired straight into the wall, and Japan were starting to get a little panicked.
There were maybe 12 minutes to go and every time Costa Rica got the ball in the Japanese half, you could feel the unease from the Japanese players. There was good play down the right from Los Ticos, the passing technique not as fluent as Spain or Argentina, but the speed of the feet and the ability to make something out of nothing stood them in good stead.
A lazy clearance by Japan that sold the midfielder short was seized upon by a red shirt, and when the ball found Keysha Fuller, who managed to stay just onside, he sized up the situation and lifted a shot delicately towards goal, almost too soft to trouble Shuichi Gonda in the Japan goal. The slow pace of the ball seemed to catch Gonda out and he was up too early, the ball touching the ends of his gloves and dropping into the corner of the net. It was right in front of us and we could barely believe it. This wasn’t in the script, and the Costa Rica fans went crackers. It was a glorious goal, so unexpected, and the pocket of fans to our right in the top section was suddenly in full voice. What a moment!
This would surely set up an intense finish to the game, we had less than ten minutes of normal time remaining, and judging by the first half where only a minute extra was played, we wouldn’t be getting any lengthy period of additional time at the end. The crowd of 41,479 was read out, proving that there was a lot of interest in this game. Japan had a glorious chance with three minutes remaining, Kaora Mitoma darted past his man down the left and his cross fell for Daichi Kamada, who didn’t catch the ball well allowing Navas to dive and save. The ball hit a defender on the line and could have bounced anywhere, luckily for the Costa Ricans, the ball bounced favourably and Navas dived on the ball to smother it and his teammates all pumped the air in celebration. This was intense. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff, and we were loving it. Japan threw everything forward, so much so that Endo was forced to take a yellow for the team to stop a breakaway with the Samurai Blue short on numbers at the back.
I ate my words when six minutes of injury time were signalled, but this went quickly, Costa Rica not able to manage the game into the corner flags, as they didn’t have possession, but they did enough to quell the Japanese enthusiasm and the final whistle brought an intriguing and surprising game to a close with the red parts of the stadium bouncing and the Japan players very apologetic to their fans at the far end. We stayed behind to soak up the celebrations, and left once the players had started to wander away.
Today was a beautiful day, the rays of the sun just starting to abate, and there was a party atmosphere around the stadium on the way out. We decided, while we were here, to see what all the fuss was about in the Mall of Qatar – a shopping centre that had a metro stop named after it, so it must be good. Everyone was funnelled in the same direction, the opposite way to the way every wanted to go, so when we got to a turning pointg for the metro, we decided to follow some other fans and took a shortcut through a car park towards the mall. Despite the best efforts of the security staff, they couldn’t stop the hordes of fans – we could see the mall right in front of us – from breaching a cordoned off section and walking through the car park.
That took us through the taxi area, and the storage area, where all the Christmas decorations were being prepared, and this really was the back door of the mall. Once inside though, the true extent of this shopping centre was seen, a vast open area with big screens showing football, masses of eating places, all with winding queues, and a big supermarket. Bondi Junction’s big brother. We decided to get our lunch from the supermarket as all the eateries had queues a mile long, probably all waiting for the cashier to take their money and print the three receipts; the supermarket did sell absolutely everything you could think of in there. It was also obvious why smoking was a problem in Qatar – the packs of cigarette were in plain view of everyone and there was little to deter a smoker, even the cost.
The food section was like the meeting place of world culture. Locals were getting their delicacies, football fans of all different countries around the world were stocking up on essentials. The crowds created the urgency to check out and leave, and we had everything we needed for a good feed. We scanned the shops for a few bits and pieces we needed – a charger for a fitbit to be able to record the tens of thousands of steps we were doing, toiletries that had run out, that sort of thing, but we knew that whatever we bought here would have to be able to go through the security gate at our next destination, the Khalifa International Stadium. We had plenty of time to get there, and we chose to make the journey by metro, all the way in to Msheireb, where the escalators were closed causing all sorts of headaches, and back out again to Sport City. This was becoming familiar, without at any time deeming repetitive. After all, it was different teams, different fans, different entertainment en route and a totally different footballing context to each game.
Arriving at Sport City station, the volume of people was high; maybe we caught this one at the rush hour for a football game. We were an hour from kick off but the queue to get through the security gate was fast-moving; I had to pop in to the media centre to print off my ticket for the following day’s game. I had my media pass and walked through the back way, luckily none of the volunteers were scanning media accreditation passes, as I didn;t have a media ticket for this one. I had my ticket printed from the yellow ticket machine, and was back out on the stadium forecourt to meet back up with Michelle about three minutes later.
The Aspire Tower, or Khalifa Tower, or Olympic Tower was a fascination. It was the tallest buildiong in Qatar and was shaped, I guess, like an Olympic torch. I don’t remember Qatar having the Olympics, but that’s besides the point. I remembered talking with one of the FIFA representatives in one of the early mixed zones, and they said they were staying in the tower. Halfway up the tower was an open air pool that hung over the side, evoking visions of the swimming pool at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It was definitely a focal point for the whole city, and you could see the tower between buildings wherever you were in Doha.
We found our gate – it was next to one of the spiral walkways, the same as at Accor Stadium in Sydney if you’re sitting in the top level of seats. The walk up there was very long, the view getting more and more exciting as you went up each level, and getting to the top must have been a kilometre walk that seemed to go on forever. Once at the top at level 9, we had the feeling of being in a private area of the stadium, with our own food and drink outlets and merch stall. Getting our Bud Zero was easy here and there were no queues for drinks or toilets or anything. Stepping out into the stadium itself, we were on the other side to where I’d been in the media seats for the previous games, which made this extra special. The stadium was actually a very impressive structure, the curvature of the roof had not been that clear from the other side, and using Michelle’s superior model of iPhone, we could capture what it really looked like with the naked eye.
The only issue with Khalifa Stadium was the distance from playing area to spectators. The technical areas for the dugouts were the size of a basketball court, and the area behind the goal was massive – so much so there was half of a replica of the centre flag covering it, just to make it look intentional and give the impression that it wasn’t a big waste of space.
The pregame was a different spectacle from this vantage point, able to see out of the stadium and to the horizon while the fire and music went off. Our side of the stadium was mainly Croatia fans, obvious to all in their distinctive red and white checked replica shirts, but there were a few Canadians dotted throughout. To the right was the main bulk of Croatia fans, and down to our left we heard the noise of the Canadians, trying to get the atmosphere going with their ‘ooh aah Canada’ chant.
The national anthems were glorious. ‘Oh Canada’ is just a proper anthem that has the feeling of a hymn to begin with, but builds into a great finish, the middle note of the second last ‘Oh Canada’ being the point where you could imagine getting emotional if you were Canadian. The Croatia anthem on the other hand is full of cymbal crashes and is from the ‘God save the King’ school of national songs, and the Croatia players must have felt pumped up at the end of that one.
The game was one minute old when Canada struck their first World Cup goal ever, and what a goal it was. Richie Laryea controlled a ball on the right and looked up for a cross. We could see Alfonso Davies streaming in down the left and Laryea swung in a cross that Davies met with a ferocious header straight past Dominik Livakovic. The stadium erupted. This was totally unexpected, but Canada knew they had to start off on the front foot – the earlier game between Belgium and Morocco had ended with a win for the Africans, so defeat in this game would mean an early elimination from the World Cup for Canada. It was all about context; knowing that statistic meant that this took on more of a knockout stages feel, and there would be nothing cagey about Canada’s approach.
Cyle Larin was played through expertly and Livakovic had to race off his line to intervene, the flag already up though, and Canada could smell a famous victory in these early stages. Croatia started to get more possession and they were classy when in control of the ball. A break from Andrej Kramaric saw him beat two players to rifle the ball home, but the flag was up again for offside. Marko Livaja then beat Kamal Miller but couldn’t beat Croatian-born Milan Borjan in the Canada goal. This was exciting! Moments later Ivan Pericic slotted a beautiful ball through for Kramaric who slotted the ball home with precision, the goal allowed to stand this time. The stadium was filled with noise, and the red and white checks took over our section as the players celebrated right in front of us. Well, not right in front, it was miles away, but you know what I mean.
The Croatia fans were now singing away, and started a chant that sounded like ‘Ooh aah’, so the Canada fans hijacked it and started adding ‘…Canada’ to it. There’s always a little dark humour where Canadians are around, and they were happy for the Croatia fans to sing what sounded like their song. At this point I noticed the assistant referee on the far side near the benches was running the line a good three metres behind the sideline. Perhaps he was confused by the lines in the grass, or was just loving the fact that the benches were a long way back and he had space. It was a quirky moment that you’d only appreciate by actually being inside the stadium looking down from a high angle.
There was concern for Canada as Stephen Eustaquio seemed to go to ground under no pressure, and there was a delay as he was tended to. That upset the concentration of the Canada players and Croatia took advantage to score a second goal, with half time looming. Right back Josip Juranovic went on a galloping run through the middle and was held up by a tackle. The ball fell kindly for him and he ignored the wide player to slot the ball through to Livaja who steered a glorious shot into the bottom left hand corner of the goal from outside the area with Borjan beaten.
The fairytale of Canada’s first ever World Cup was a distant memory as the half-time whistle sounded following a Kramaric shot that he blazed over selfishly. What an ending to the half by Croatia, and they looked the classy team that we knew they were. Canada were battling, but battling just didn’t seem to be enough. The half-time tradition of Coldplay’s Stars and Marcel Desailly preaching about recycling was still fresh enough not to be boring, and we were ready for the second half – would Canada come out with abandon and go on the attack?
The answer was yes. A shot was fired just wide by sub Jonathan Osorio, before Croatia went on the attack, Kramaric connecting well with a low cross and having his shot brilliantly saved by Borjan. Canada went up the other end and Tajon Buchanan managed to get the ball to Jonathan David, who shot from distance, Livakovic saving with his fingertips to divert the ball over the bar. This was a thrill a minute, and both teams looked ready to throw caution to the wind to find the next goal.
With 20 minutes left, Perisic teased his man and sent the ball over for Kramaric, whose control in the area was impeccable and he side-footed a superb shot past Borjan, making it all look too easy, the unfortunate keeper given no chance. The game was over as a contest, but Canada had nothing to lose. This looked just like France v Australia; the Socceroos took the lead early but trailed at the break and the second half was all France. I texted my Canadian friend who had already given up hope.
The crowd of 44,374 was announced, 500 shy of capacity and we couldn’t argue with that figure. Croatia started their game management plan now, and fans were leaving with ten minutes to go. This was a feature of the World Cup and I never did understand why. With five minutes remaining, there was a mass exodus. These people weren’t football fans. This was the World Cup, the fans had travelled serious distances to get here – the true fans wouldn’t leave before the final whistle, this was bizarre.
Canada kept going, and Buchanan headed tamely inside with three of the six additional minutes played. The ball was cleared and Bruno Petkovic chipped a hopeful through ball. Unfortunately for Kamal Miller, he completely messed up his control, the ball going through his legs, leaving two Croatia players clean through. They just had to get the final pass right with Miller gaining ground to try and make amends, Mislav Orcic rolling the ball to his right for Lovro Majer to hit the ball into the roof of the net with an over-the-top finish that almost went over.
There was little time left and the referee blew for full-time. The Croatia fans were all up celebrating and the players came around the stadium to celebrate too. Their team had been by far the better team tonight, and it felt like only a matter of time before their classy players started to dictate the play. It was a pleasure to see Luka Modric in action – he started quite slowly but came right into it during the first half and bossed the game, and Ivan Perisic was all class.
The man of the match followed the magical formula of being the player who scores the most goals from the winning team. It would be interesting to see what happened if a team won 5-4 but all four goals were worldies from the losing striker. They’d still give it to the winning player who’d scored two tap-ins.
Canada were out. The first team out of the competition and still with a game to play. Their players stood in a circle, their coach maybe delivering some home truths, and then came to the Canada fans down to our left to show their appreciation. We stayed to take in the post-game atmosphere, Mexican fans interacting with fans in Brazil shirts, a Japanese fan almost asleep after a big day. It was heart-warming, and great to see fans of all different countries coming together to see a game that was not exactly top billing.
We were one of the last to leave level 9 and we were definitely the last to get out of the gate, after pausing on the descent to take in the marvellous view of the fan festival below and the fireworks lighting up the horizon where the built-up area of Doha dominated the skyline. The fan activations were still going, the Qatar Airways marquee a little lame with an ageing David Beckham on screen. The Croatia fans were making their own entertainment, and we finally stood and watched the Arabian male dance troup, who we had seen every day at a game, who seemed to be local celebrities. The dancing seemed to be a little weary though at this stage and that was no surprise given their seemingly endless schedule.
Our night was at a crossroads. It was 9.30pm and we could either head out on the town, or we could head back to the apartment, catch up on the football we’d missed, have a decent feed and catch up with our flatmates, and get to bed at a reasonable time. The late nights had started to take their toll obviously, and the second option was the only one that made any sense. After catching the metro back to Hamad Hospital, we stopped off at Lulus for a decent shop, something we hadn’t done for a while, to get bottled water and some good breakfast food. We were home just after 11pm and settled in to watch some replays on BeIn Sports with some hot food from the supermarket. This felt like home and it also felt like we were on holiday.
Another big day was ahead of us. We were off to pick up some serious booze for our final Socceroos gameday, we had a 4pm game, our debut at Education City, Football Australia had organised drinks in West Bay at 7pm and then I was due at Lusail for the blockbuster Portugal v Uruguay at 10pm. The early night was what we needed. Well done to us!
Matches attended : 15 of 28
Matches missed : Spain v Germany, Belgium v Morocco