Thu 01/12/2022 : Morocco magic, Japan keep Spain sweating

The Socceroos were through. We had a big night that night, and the knowledge that Australia were up against the might of Argentina in the next game was beginning to sink in. This was a very lazy morning, where I typed up the match report for the Denmark game and uploaded all the photos to Twitter to complement the piece, and we did washing and made the initial enquiries into moving our flight to the next available after our scheduled departure. We had envisaged this scenario, but we had never expected it to come true; after Qatar airways brought the flight forward we knew it would be a clash, but chose to leave it, our expectations of continuing in the World Cup not as high as the reality. There was also the matter of tickets. How did that work? How would we go about that? Who would sell them?

We were both popping panadols to stifle our respective ailments; I was completely bunged up while Michelle had the dry cough that everyone seemed to have had at some point during the tournament. It wasn’t pretty, but the medicine helped. Our plan today was that Michelle would go and check out of the Fanatics accommodation; after all we weren’t going to use it. Michelle knew quite a few people on the tour and would catch up with people she’d been on tour with before. I would go and catch two more games, and complete my World Cup venue bingo card, a full house with a trip to Al Thumamma Stadium, both of our destinations in the same direction.

We set off on the metro, changing at Al Bidda, unable to remember if it was this station or Msheireb where you could get off one train and get on the other one on the platform opposite. I think we got it wrong. The train was full of Morocco fans, and they were in good voice. I left Michelle on the train at Free Zone where I would take the advertised 20-minute shuttle bus and 35-minute walk. I had figured that, like Google maps, the 35-minute walk meant for the old and infirm ie the worst case scenario. I got that wrong too.

The shuttle bus did take about twenty minutes. After getting the bus from Souq Waqif for the last game at Khalifa Stadium, twenty minutes would get you a long way in Qatar, and indeed we seemed to travel for ages along non-descript roads with non-descript housing complexes and businesses alongside. We pulled up in a dimly lit area next to a wasteland and this was obviously where the shuttle ended and the walk started. I wish I’d started my watch to see how long it took; 35 minutes was conservative and that must have been to the edge of the stadium precinct. Initially, there was nothing to keep everyone entertained en route and it was a mind-numbing straight line to accompany your sore feet, but then we turned a corner into a massive boulevard and there were activations. A dance troup had all the kids entertained and there were a group of Moroccan fans serving coffee; I was offered some, but my explanation that I didn’t drink coffee was met with blank looks, like being a vegetarian in Italy or gluten free in France.

Finally I arrived at the stadium, and it was stunning. It appeared to be wrapped in fabric from a distance, and was inspired by the small caps worn by men in the Arab world. On getting closer it was even moreso, an impressive result despite all the issues and alleged malpractices that went on to construct the stadium. The area was quite dark, and there seemed to be a slightly different colour scheme; there was no media centre entrance that I could see, so I opted to try my luck at the priority queue and got through no problem. The complimentary flags for fans had all gone again. I found the media centre and went to print out my media tickets for the final round of games tomorrow. I printed one, then the other claimed to have printed and the machine didn’t produce anything. Damn, I’d got all the way through the group stages without an issue. There was no one at the ticket desk and no one at the front desk either, as everyone had gone through to take their positions for the game. Could tomorrow be the first game I would miss? I made my way to the stadium; nothing worth worrying about now.

I was lucky to have a desk for this one, and I got chatting to the Canadian reporter next to me who had some encouraging words for me once he knew I was from Australia. The Socceroos were seen as some sort of blueprint for what Canada should have achieved, and that gave me a sense of how Arnie’s achievement in getting our boys through to the Round of 16 was being felt around the world.

The Canada fans were over to the left, the Morocco fans to the right, both sets of fans clad in red, and the Moroccans had the same idea as the Tunisia fans at Al Janoub, all bunching up behind the goal to form a tight pack of fans who could outsing their opponents. There was hope that Canada would redeem themselves here. It was a final chance to show the cynics that they were capable of winning and playing good football at the World Cup. They had scored their first goal of the World Cup last time out against Croatia, could they go one better and get the first win? Morocco would be relying on the result from the other game in the group if they failed to get a result here, but they were looking good for qualification with Canada out of the running. The national anthems were brilliant, first the goose-bump inducing Canadian anthem, and then the huge roar went up for the national anthem of Morocco, quite a military number, which was sung with so much emotion by the fans. This was the first time I’d seen Morocca fans in action, and they had similar huge numbers as their North African counterparts from Tunisia.

The game was only minutes old and Canada had enjoyed some possession, accompanied by intense whistling from the Moroccan fans. The journalist next to me soon had his head in his hands though along with his colleague next to him. Defender Steven Vitoria turned and rolled the ball back in the direction of goalkeeper Milan Borjan. The angle of the backpass prompted Borjan to rush unnecessarily, and he raced out and completely misdirected his pass, as if in two minds. It fell to the one player you wouldn’t want it to, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech, who casually lifted the ball over the stranded keeper and into the goal. What a calamity. What a disaster. What a start for Morocco, and their fans were going wild at the other end of the stadium.

It was one way traffic. Junior Hoilett went into the book for a nasty challenge and Morocco piled on the pressure. Tajon Buchanan ran the ball out of play as he looked to head down the wing and played on, the Canadian fans not impressed that he had run the ball over the sideline with no one on him. The Moroccan fans started a Viking clap, which was incredibly loud. The red seats made their end look full, but to be fair it was absolutely jam packed in the middle behind the goal. The green seats around the rest of the stadium highlighted how many Morocco fans had made their way to the end to be with their more active fans.

Midway through the half, Achraf Hakimi launched a seemingly speculative through ball over the top of the Canada defence. Youssef En-Nesyri galloped after it, outpaced his defender, and when the ball sat up, delivered a devastating finish under Borjan for 2-0. It was an exquisite finish, quite unexpected, and the Morocco fans didn’t hesitate to celebrate wildly at their unbelievable start to this vital game.

Jonathon Osario was booked for another heavy challenge, studs up on his man. The Mexican wave started and promptly ended; no time for that nonsense with good flowing football on show. The desk next to me was in danger of being broken in two in fury, but with five minutes remaining of the half, the game changed complexion. Sam Adekugbe came forward up the Canada left and slipped his man beautifully. His first time cross caused Nayef Aguerd to stick out a boot and deflect the ball goalwards, wrong-footing goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and sneaking in at the near post right in front of the hige bank of Morocco fans. Game on!

The first half action wasn’t done yet, and after another booking for Canada, a free-kick was swung in and only half cleared. En-Nesyri was in the right place to volley the ball home and raced away to the same area where he had celebrated just before. However the flag was up for offside, so it seemed, and the celebrations were curtailed after a brief VAR check. The half-time whistle sounded and somehow Morocco were only 2-1 ahead. They could and should have had many more goals, and the scoreline was nowhere near a reflection of the dominance.

The second half had a lot to live up to, but when Kamal Miller launched a long ball to no one, it didn’t look as though Canada would be getting anywhere near Morocco. The first ten minute were frantic, and it was Canada who were sacrificing defence for attack, the game opening up as a result. Hoilett went close to turning in a cross on the stretch, and Canada made a triple sub, their last throw of the dice to get something from the game. Morocco made their own tactical subs in response and the referee was quickly on to the slow departures from the field. Canada were in the ascendency now, and forced a corner from a free-kick out on the left. Hoilett floated in a perfect corner, picking out the dynamic run of Atiba Hutchinson who powered a header onto the underside of the bar. The ball bounced on the line, and up in the air. Vitoria resisted putting the ball in with his hands and left it for Alistair Johnston to leap highest but he could only drop his header over the bar and onto the roof of the net. That was an unbelievable moment, high drama and high tension. Canada were now all over Morocco and had a succession of corners.

The Morocco team tried their best to slow down the game, but it was end-to-end stuff. Vitoria messed up a header at the near post when he should have done better, and then found himself in the book for a wild swing at his opponent when contesting a header. The ninety minutes were up and we were into the final four of added time. The whistling from the Morocco fans was intense. The final corner of the game saw Borjan come up, not entirely sure why he would, and he was caught upfield when his control let him down again. Morocco couldn’t capitalise and they couldn’t soon after when a heavy touch in the area saw Borjan smother. The final whistle sounded though and the Moroccan bench raced onto the field to celebrate. The Canada players were out on their feet, their opponents hugging each other after cementing first place and a passage through to the Round of 16. These were unbelievable scenes.

The Morocco players were determined to lift coach Walid Regragui onto their shoulders, but he seemed to have stifled that attempt by three of his players. That all changed when the whole squad was called in for a team huddle, and at its conclusion, the victorious coach was hoisted high and tossed in the air to great joy from the players and fans.

The celebrations were long. I disappeared into the mixed zone; there weren’t that many journalists in there, but I was interested to hear the reactions of the players. Canada’s Jonathan David spoke in French and English, which you would expect from a Canadian player who was addressing journalists of both countries. He would need time to relect on the tournament as a whole but was glowing of his team despite the results. He kept it quite brief, so the next player was the chiselled man mountain Steven Vitoria who towered above the media pack and answered many questions. This had been a great experience for him and his teammates. They had come here to close the gap but had been undone by the small margins. They came out for the second half today and went for it and didn’t back down. That showed the courage of the group, and he was so proud of everyone. There were great things to look forward to with this group. When asked about the mistake for the first goal, he said it was not the goalkeeper’s fault, it was on everyone as they are a family and they want to grow together. He signed off with congratulations for the US for making the Round of 16 and that he would be leaving Qatar proud but sad.

There was no sign of anyone else coming through; I may have missed some. So, I headed back to ground level and back to the media centre, remembering that my ticket hadn’t printed for tomorrow’s game. Luckily there was a person on the main desk and I explained the situation. They appeared to be noting down the issue, and I figured it would be a tricky one to resolve, but she then simply produced a copy of the ticket and handed it over. Great service! Apparently there had been an issue with the machine and it was now fixed.

Attending the mixed zone and sorting out my ticket meant that I was running a little late. I arrived at the media shuttle area and was informed that the shuttle to Khalifa Stadium had gone. Conflicting opinions from the volunteers said that there would be another one along soon, and also that there was only one shuttle and that had gone. When I asked what I was meant to do to get to my next game, I simply received a shrug.

For the first time I felt hopeless. I wasn’t feeling on top of the world either and this was a situation I barely had any energy for. The journey back to the metro would take over an hour, with another 45 minutes on the metro itself and who knows how long at the other end. I might make the last ten minutes of the Japan v Spain game. Plan B was formulated, and I asked where I could find an Uber. No Ubers close to the stadium, but the car park might be a good idea to get a taxi; the car park was over a walkway over the motorway in the distance. Some people were jumping fences and walking to the side of the road as if Ubers were stopping at the side of the motorway. That looked a little out of my comfort zone, so I followed the fence line and eventually found a gap in the fence that took me into the crowds that were streaming over the bridge to the car park on the other side of the motorway.

As always, this involved a lot of walking. I asked a few people where I could get an Uber, and was directed further away, and then someone asked if I wanted a taxi. When I said my destination I got “No problem, sir, 200 Riyals” with a smile. I knew that QAR200 was excessive even for Uber at mega-surge rates so offered 50, and we settled on 100, possibly horrifically over-priced for Qatar, but in Sydney terms completely acceptable for the situation I was in. There was still another long walk to get to the taxi, which was essentially a private car, and we exited the car park fairly quickly and straight into traffic. As with the bus to Ahmed Bin Ali the other day for the England game, the traffic disappeared and returned with a vengeance, but we were there very quickly, the Khalifa Stadium right in front of us. There was nowhere to stop though, so the taxi driver pulled over to the side and joined a makeshift queue that had formed, and I jumped out and thanked the driver. I was right in front of the media entrance. Bingo!

Where the magic happens for the journalists – the media centre at Khalifa Stadium

I’d been to this stadium numerous times already, so knew exactly where I was going, and knew where to find the media entrance, tucked behind the spiral walkway, completely out of sight. I was in my seat well in advance of kick off, feeling quite light-headed but also very pleased with myself for getting out of a tricky situation.

Michelle had been in touch asking for Hayya card numbers – we may be able to get Argentina tickets through the Fanatics. Okay, we hadn’t been part of the tour but we had paid our money. Alas, that was a no go as they had already secured all of their tickets in our absence. The ticket situation would therefore be up in the air until the next day when Football Australia would announce how to get tickets for those independent travelling fans.

Back to Khalifa Stadium, and this was a massive game. Spain would surely qualify, and Germany should be too good for Costa Rica in the other game. But Japan were there to disrupt the natural order, and even the Costa Rica team were in with a chance given their win over Japan last time out. It was beautifully poised, and one of the journalists a few rows in front must have asked for a different feed on the monitor, and it was showing the Germany v Costa Rica game.

For some reason, I barely took any photos at this game. Perhaps I was a little foggy, or most likely the game was an absolute cracker. The Spanish support at the stadium was much less than I expected – it seemed that some European countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and Poland didn’t have as much support as the South American teams, who absolutely filled out the stadiums, and Spain were in that boat. The Japanese active section was strangely quiet, but as colourful as always in their blue and white, and the game lacked a little atmosphere – disappointing really given what was at stake.

The teams traded half-chances, Nico Williams creating a chance up the right but Sergio Busquets, the playmaker of the Spanish team, blazed over. Then the same player gave the ball away on the edge of his area and Ko Itakura fired into the side netting on the overlap. Barely ten minutes in, a routine win for Spain looked on the cards, as Cesar Azpilicueta crossed perfectly for Alvaro Morata to power home a header from close range. The Spanish fans were bouncing, and strangely enough it woke up the Japanese fans too. We had a noisy stadium at last. We were only 20 minutes in and the Mexican wave was attempted. Why oh why? Was the entertainment not enough on the field? It actually went all the way around the stadium three times!

Morata had a good chance midway through the half to make it two, the first effort saved by goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda and the rebound adjudged to be offside anyway. Defender Rodri was too big and too stroing for Daizan Maeda in a duel, before goalkeeper Unai Simon dallied too long on the ball and was almost dispossessed, but made a delightful clearance to make up for it. The half ended with Maya Yoshida complaining about the rolling around of Morata that cost him a yellow card, and he had a point. The scoreline was correct though, no complaints about a 1-0 lead for Spain who were cruising. The other game was sitting at 1-0 too, so at this stage it was Spain and Germany going through as expected.

Alweays a busy field at half time

Some risky defending after a disjointed opening two minutes of the second half sold Alejandro Balde into trouble on the left of the Spanish defence. He lost out to Junya Ito in a duel and the ball broke for half-time substitute Ritsu Doan who cut inside and curled a cracking shot via the hand of goalkeeper Simon into the net for an amazing and unexpected equaliser. What a goal, what a start to the second half. We now had a game on our hands and the stadium was going off.

The next attack from Japan saw goalscorer Doan control a pass in the area and roll a lovely inviting ball across goal. There was no one to tap home, but Kaoru Mitoma managed to get to the ball on the byline and lift the ball back in for Ao Tanaka to knee the ball in from half a yard under pressure. Surely the ball had gone out, but the Japanese players celebrated until the flag on the far side signalled that a goal kick. The referee stopped play to allow VAR to do its thing, to confirm that the ball had gone out. It certainly looked like it, but you never know as we didn’t have a good angle live or on the screen for the replays. There was a long wait and lots of conjecture. The goal stood, correctly or otherwise, and the players could then celebrate properly. The Japanese active fans were going crazy.

Japan had a lot of the play. This game had turned on its head. News came through of a Costa Rica equaliser. Incredible! Mitoma raced up the left and crossed for fellow sub Takuma Asano who sliced wide when well placed. Spain had rung the changes in readiness for going on the offensive to find an equaliser. All of a sudden, there was news of a Costa Rica goal. Spain were heading out of the World Cup along with Germany. Costa Rica and Japan would go through, what were the chances? With less than 20 minutes to go, Spain were attacking furiously, Japan were resolute in defence and the shock was on. Germany equalised, Spain were now through again. Germany needed lots of goals to catch Spain to knock them out. The big screen kept updating the Group E table and it was changing quickly.

There were 44,851 people in the stadium, not far from capacity, and they were witnessing the most unbelievable drama. Germany had scored again, but needed many goals. Dani Olmo fired one in as the clock ticked over into 7 minutes of injury time, and Japan tried to run down the minutes by ekeing out fouls. The Japanese active was roaring, the fans of both teams were on the edge of their seats. The final whistle was met with huge emotion from the Japanese, the bench racing on the field. Both teams had qualified, but there was only one team that was in any way satisfied with the result. Japan had been excellent in the second half, and completely deserved this massive win.

The photographers all surrounded the Japan team as they celebrated with each other, with the active fans and then with their friends and family. It was a lovely scene. The Spanish team had applauded their team and were through to the Round of 16, but there was very little else to celebrate – a hollow success.

Outside the stadium , the Japanese fans were understandably elated. They were being collared by the TV cameras for interviews about their team’s success.

The boys done good. It was a game of two halves,

I passed through the media centre, realising just how poorly I now felt and asked where I could get a shuttle bus to the Main Media Centre, thus bypassing the long queues for the metro and getting back onto the green line that would take me home to the Seven Pearls at Hamad Hospital. I found the shuttle no problem and was taken aback by how many people who sniffling and coughling. There was obviously some sort of condition going around, and it wasn’t pleasant at all. I was hot, my nose was blocked and tissues were now my best friend. The panadol helped, but the symptoms were still there.

I headed through the media centre and had the urge to stop at the McDonalds cafe that was open 24 hours, and left with an ice cold mango smoothie. That was possibly the single most delicious, refreshing, therapeutic and medicinal thing I had ever had in my life, and the lack of food and drink during these manic days was potentially a factor in feeling the way I did. I got back in to our apartment via a quick trip to Lulu for some food and provisions and settled on the couch with two of my great flatmates to catch some of the action from the games and catch up on what everyone had been doing. Michelle was still out in Al Wakra and was having a great time, and would be back later. It was now maybe 2am and I retired to bed, but fired off a few emails regarding changing flights from Doha.

I was awoken at 2.45am by a call from our travel agent. I could barely talk through my blocked nose, but we managed to organise to move our flights to the following day, thus allowing us to attend the Argentina game whilst cutting short our post-World Cup holiday by a day in Singapore. A fantastic result that eased my mind completely and I was off to sleep again. Michelle came in not long after to find me burning up. I was running a fever and she made sure I had some more medicine before settling back in and trying to get some sleep before another big World Cup day. This one had been amazing. The script that FIFA had written for the end of the group stages was so well orchestrated, how could they even dream of tinkering with the four-team group format ahead of the next World Cup?

Matches attended : 23 of 44
Matches missed : Croatia v Belgium, Costa Rica v Germany

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