Any chance of getting to Aspire Academy to take part in the media v staff match at 7.30am was blown out of the water when I awoke at 8am, the blockout curtains doing their job. I had obviously clicked off my two alarms in my sleep, and without my natural alarm of the sun to help trigger me into action, I checked the time and the realisation that I had slept in jolted me into a panic. There was no point in trying to even get there; I would have arrived as the game finished, so texted my humbling apology to FA media chief Bec and slumped back into my pillow to stew in my guilt and anger until it was time to get up for the day.
We already knew the way to Al Wakra and the Al Janoub Stadium, but today we were heading there in daylight, and we were heading there as neutral fans, the main drawcard for me personally was seeing Newcastle defender Fabian Schar in action. We were up and about with time to spare, the Aspire opportunity still playing on my mind, catching up with snippets of games on TV and catching up with what our flatmates were doing the night before. There was no rush to get to the game, and we set off less than two hours from kick off, deciding late on to take an Uber to see how that would work for future games there.
The Uber ride was simple, until we saw Al Janoub on our left from the motorway. It then disappeared in the distance and we continued driving south for another ten minutes before doubling back and following the police directions to finally make it to the car park, not far from where the shuttle buses were arriving. We were looking at each other in the back of the Uber as if we’d been kidnapped, but it turned out that it was all just traffic management. The short walk to the stadium saw us pass the big World Cup trophy. We tried to get a shot of the Al Janoub sign all to ourselves, but that was never going to happen – the sign was so big and there were so many people trying to get photos, even the volunteers were getting photos.
This was a great time to relax and take in a game without having the stress and pain (or should that be joy and delight) of supporting your team, and we were really looking forward to this event as football tourists. The security gate seemed to be extra picky today, Michelle’s small bag attracting more interest than usual and there were questions about everything from her collection of magical items in there. The security people were grilling her with questions and it was a little unnerving – perhaps security had been heightened for some reason.
I noticed for the first time the social hierarchy in action. Standing at the queue, a Qatari local, dressed in the traditional white robes, simply presented himself to the front of the queue and was waved through. There was no check other than the metal detector, and it was obvious that all other staff and volunteers had to give the Qataris preferential treatment; either that, or they expected it and that was their way. It was an interesting exercise to be able to watch people in action while I waited for Michelle to negotiate her inquisition.
Once inside the perimeter, the flags ran out as we approached the stall – it is still a brilliant initiative to bring colour and life to the neutral fans – and we headed into the stadium to grab a sweet-tasting Bud Zero and a burger, and to enjoy the pre-game build up.
Being at Al Janoub in daylight, and appreciating how the seating arrangements were for the next Australia games here, this was effectively a reconnaissance mission. At least we would not be in the full sun like the Swiss fans were today – we were at the other end, and it was only the right-hand side, as we looked at it, that was bathed in sun. Our tickets for the Denmark game were up at that end, on the bottom level. That was all undercover, but it would be dark by kick off for that game, so the situation with the sun was immaterial.
The stadium did appear to have a retractable roof, but those poor Swiss fans didn’t benefit from it. The air-conditioning holes under their seats would be at least regulating the temperature. Roger Milla, the Cameroon star of their miracle run in the 1990 World Cup, was paraded on the field and received recognition for his services to football. We would love some of his flamboyant football and iconic celebrations today, but the Swiss would be favourites. The inflatable World Cup was missing once again. The Swiss national anthem, not one familiar to us, was a mix between Happy Birthday and Here Comes The Bride, and the Cameroon fans all went mad when their national song was played.
Cameroon had early chances, Bryan Mbeumo, the Brentford player, raced on to a long pass and chose to shoot instead of squaring to the unmarked Eric Choupo-Moting, and Yann Sommer’s save fell kindly for Karl Ekambi who blazed over. That was a glorious chance. Choupo-Moting then nicked the ball around his last man and set off for goal, Manuel Akanji eventually catching up to him as he shot, bundling him over, and Sommer saved. That could have been a penalty, but nothing was given. Switzerland did look dangerous whenever Xherdan Shaqiri or Ruben Vargas got on the ball, but the defending was tight. Cameroon had a great chance from a low cross from the right that was expertly dealt with by Silvan Widmer as the Ekambi looked odds-on to connect, then up the other end Jean-Charles Castelletto made a last-ditch tackle to prevent Cameroon-born Breel Embolo from racing through on goal.
We witnessed perhaps the worst shot in World Cup history in the first half too. Right-back Collins Fai raced on to a ball on the right and took aim, but sent his shot closer to the corner flag than the goal and there was laughter all around.
The half-time break was fun, people-watching and soaking up the different nationalities around us. Mexican face masks were being passed around for photo opportunities, there were shirts of all different countries and it was an enjoyable atmosphere.
The second half action was excellent. Switzerland had taken the game up a notch to try and counteract the Cameroon pressing, and Granit Xhaka sprayed the ball out to Shaqiri, whose cross was on a plate for Embolo who confidently slammed the ball home from the edge of the six-yard box, completely unchallenged. What must have been a difficult moment for him to process saw him simply stand, almost Bresciano-like, and let his team mates congratulate him – imagine scoring against the country of your birth, what a thrill! Another chance soon after saw a Cameroon defender slice the ball over his own goal, so close to being a second goal with keeper Andre Onana beaten, and there were a flurry of corners that were ineffectual.
The crowd of 39,089 was announced, officially the lowest attendance of the whole tournament as it turned out, but there were a lot of empty seats, making it quite comfortable where we were. To be honest, I don’t understand why there were empty seats at all – there were never any Category 3 seats available on the ticket portal, so why were there 5,000 empty seats? Even if FIFA made all remaining unsold seats at Cat 3 prices and you had to pick them up from a ticket office the day before the game, they would have definitely sold; there was such a demand for tickets on the ground here.
There was time for a last-ditch block by Castelletto to deny sub Haris Seferovic, and that was it for the action. The final whistle was almost greeted with relief rather than celebration from the Swiss players and fans, but it was still the cue for the Cameroon fans to celebrate like they do.
We went on a discovery tour of the inside of the stadium after the final whistle, taking in the live TV coverage. Many people were doing the same thing, fellow football tourists from around the world. Back outside, the golf buggies, meant to be transporting the aged and disabled, seemed to be hooning around, the volunteers having fun. The mood outside was still one of celebration, the Swiss fans happy with the win, the Cameroon fans just naturally full of joy.
The afternoon sun was waning, and that gave us the opportunity to get some cracking photos of the stadium. Well, I thought they were good. This Cameroonian fan leader had descended into a deep depression at the result and wasn’t up for any photos, but we took some anyway.
Our next venue was the Fan Festival at Al Bidda; we could have joined the big queue for the shuttle buses but had instead made the decision to travel on the stadium-to-stadium shuttle to Stadium 974 and hop on the metro there. Whilst it might not save any time, it was something different and we stumbled upon Matt Coleman, an Aussie living and working in Qatar, who was making the same journey to his home.
It was strange being near a stadium when we weren’t going to the game – Portugal v Ghana was on there and there were already a lot of people streaming from the metro. The long walk to the metro was easy, everyone going in the opposite direction and we negotiated our way to Al Bidda and found the route to the fan festival, which was quite a walk and along some big roads that were closed off. Unbelievably it was airport-style security to get us in there too and we worked our way around the expansive area, packed already with fans watching the conclusion of the Uruguay vs Korea game on the giant screen.
The Fan Leader programme had included meal vouchers from the Fan Festival and we went to check that out, alas there were none left; luckily we bumped into one of our group who had a couple spare (thanks Liam!) and we could sample the delicacies from around the world at the big food area. It was good food too, and we found a spot to sit at a table and watch the rest of the match.
There were plenty of interactions for fans, the sponsors going to town. The Hyundai headless robot dogs were a little bit freaky, sitting there all motionless until they got up on their legs and started walking around like real dogs. We stayed for a short while, and whilst there was no beer, by now it didn’t feel as if it would even be appropriate to have beer. We left when Al Isha Prayer Time was announced and there was a period of inactivity.
The walk to the metro station was epic, such a long way to the White Palace, as Al Bidda station was exit-only. The crowd management was probably overkill to be honest, the number of fans not in the realms of needing an exit-only station and a 4km walk to the nearest station to get out of there. Still, it was always pleasant, volunteers along the route assuring us that we were ‘nearly there’ when in fact we were nowhere near, and everyone in a happy mood. This was where we would part ways – our marvellous day together at the World Cup as fans and football tourists had come to an end – Michelle was off to meet up with some of our group for a margarita or two, and I was heading back to Lusail Stadium to take in Brazil v Serbia.
I’d already been to Lusail Stadium to see the incredibale Saudi Arabia victory over Argentina, and I knew what to expect. I’d never seen Brazil or Serbia in action, the closest I get to that is seeing Yugoslavia beat the USA in 1998. The metro was packed, and as usual good natured, with an equal amount of local fans as international fans, predominantly clad in the yellow shirts of Brazil.
The last escalator up or down to ground level was always the most entertaining pre-game, as the fans chanted and there was entertainment at the top and bottom of the escalators. As this was Lusail, I was aware of the mad shortcut presented to accredited media, and took the same route as I had done for the Argentina game, across next to the monument of what looked like an Olympic flame, and over to the media centre. I had time to print my tickets for the following day and grab an unopened bottle of water after passing through security and into the yellow liveried media centre.
The stadium forecourt seemed to have a little more security presence than noticed at other games. Perhaps again there was heightened security or the teams in question were considered higher priority. As expected the Brazilian fans were the most flambouyant and targets for the TV cameras, and the question popped up as to who was the most fervent group of supporters – the Brazilians or the Argentinians. That’s a debate I’d love to see.
The media entrance at Lusail was a simple doorway that led to a lift lobby, or there were steps to the left that allowed you to beat the rush – it was a punishing set of stairs though. This was all familiar now, and I had a seat for this one, in the same area as my last visit to this magnificent stadium. The stadium was filling up, and there were all manner of Brazil shirts with all sorts of names on the back. My own was a Bruno 39 shirt, paying homage to the Newcastle United hero now bossing the midfield in the Premier League, that I’d just bought at The Back Page shop just down from St James Park.
The idea that working media would need to wear smart casual wear was a myth, but it was still normal to see tailored shorts and buttoned or collared shirts as the norm. I was quite happy to wear my Brazilian shirt for this one, and no one would say anything. The Australia scarf blended in too. After all, I was sitting in amongst the Brazil fans here. The photographers prowled the area as before, looking for the pretty girls or the famous faces; it was quite creepy really.
Pregame was as amazing as always, the “2022 Qatar Cup FIFA World” banners being carried out made me laugh – there must be a better way; bring them out in order maybe – but the pregame schedule was almost achieving the levels that the Champions League would reach in familiarity. No inflatable World Cup, no party though.
I was hoping to see Bruno Guimares starting, but he was on the bench, but there was still interest, with former NUFC front man and loose canon Aleksandar Mitrovic leading the line for Serbia. Former Toon target Lucas Paqueta was in the Brazil team, and it took me a while, but the unmistakeable figure of the A-League’s very own Alireza Faghani was the referee for the day, himself an amazing story and he was rewarded for his consistently expert refereeing with a centre at the World Cup.
This was as close as we could get to a home game for Brazil, the yellow shirts were everywhere, with a bank of red at the far end of the field.
The noise was intense for the anthems and that continued into the game, although the game started at quite a pedestrian pace. Vinicius Junior was the first to shine, a mazy run just crowded out by the Serbian defence. Raphinha was very busy down the right hand side, but the Serb defence continued to be unfazed. Strahinja Pavlović was booked early on for a ridiculous foul on Neymar, pursuing him around the field to bring him down. It was clear that the Serbian team had instructions to keep him in check.
There were plenty of long-range speculators that Vanja Milinkovic-Savic had covered, and he had to be quick to thwart a dynamic run from Vini Jr, hacking the ball out of play on the far side. It seemed like only a matter of time before Serbia would buckle under the pressure, and Raphinha played a glorious one-two but his finish was tame. Another fabulous flick in the area led to a low cross in the area that again was dealt with by the Serbian defence. Only one minute of added time was played, which was refreshing, and which correctly suggested that the ball had been in play more often than not.
Half time was photo time, my Bruno flag getting its first airing of the tournament.
Half time saw some technical difficulties in the media tribunes, which seemed to be resolved quickly, then Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars signalled the lowering of the lights and the flashlights coming out to make quite the scene in this mammoth stadium.
The second half was seconds old when Brazil passed up a gift. The Serbian goalkeeper and defender played with fire and Raphinha stole the ball and advanced on goal, but Milinkovic-Savic spread himself big to block a certain goal. It was all Brazil. After another great block had prevented the lead, Vini Jr crossed and Neymar lifted a shot just past the corner of post and bar. Alex Sandro smashed in a shot from distance which hit the inside of the post, but finally Brazil broke the deadlock, Vini Jr taking over from Neymar who was threatening to dribble all the way through, smashing in a shot that was saved, the follow up falling perfectly for Richarlison to poke the ball home. All the play was on the Brazil left, it was as if they were putting on a show for the TV cameras. Vini Jr slipped as he shot when he should have scored. Serbia then went up the other end and had a chance that was hacked off the line, a reminder that there was only one goal in it.
The second goal, when it finally arrived with 18 minutes left, was a piece of magic. Vini Jr and Neymar lazily rolled the ball around in midfield until the former decided it was time to attack, he jinked inside, but instead of trying the spectacular, he lifted the ball to Richarlison in the area. His control wasn’t perfect, but it set up the chance for the most outrageous scissor kick which flew into the net. Not since Florian Lejeune against Everton in the Premier League have I witnessed such a goal. It was top drawer.
Brazil could and should have added more. Casemiro bent one in off the bar, Rodrygo hit his around the post from the same spot, and Fred powered one just wide from distance. This was exhibition stuff from Brazil, and they were totally in command.
The crowd of 88,103 was announced, and the game finished with Olés from the Brazilian fans. It was a terrific spectacle and the 7 minutes of added time for all the substititions was still not enough – the fans would have been happy to continue on for another 20 minutes. The final whistle was greeted with an enormous roar. Serbia had bravely battled in the first half, but the weight of dominance eventually saw Brazil break through and wrestle the game from their grip.
Once the players had ended their salutes to the crowd, it was time to high-tail it out of there, and back to the metro. That was a quick process, and given the proximity to the hotel where Michelle and the group was watching the game, I jumped in an Uber at Al Saad station and headed to the Radisson Blu and up to the sports bar where a couple of USA fans were shouting beers and loving life. This was to become the norm now, missing a good chunk of an evening to attend a game and then joining the fray at the end of the night. It was some night though. There were clearly ladies of the night in action as the bar closed and everyone headed down to find their ride home. We waited a good while for our Uber, restricted by the crazy road conditions put in place for the World Cup, and were back at our accommodation just after 3am. Time for some late night takeaway from our favourite spot right next to our building, and we were tucking into some Doha culinary delights by 4am, catching up with our flatmates and denying ourselves any reasonable sleep. This was the World Cup, baby!
What a great day. The next one would be a solo day – Michelle was booked in for a massage and some tourist action, while I was heading to two more games. This was exhausting!
Matches attended : 9 of 16
Matches missed : Uruguay v Korea, Portugal v Ghana