Tue 22/11/2022 : Saudi glory and the Aussies kick off

This World Cup was all about the late nights, this time with a 2am dinner and probably getting to bed around 3.30am, it was no surprise that the next morning didn’t really exist. I was up and about in good time though, getting ready to head to Lusail Stadium and left just after 11am with instructions of where to be later in the day to meet up with Michelle and the rest of the independent Socceroos fans in West Bay.

Dusting for pawprints, that stuff is in our lungs now

Lusail is a new part of the city, on the north end of the red metro line. Fan group The Green and Gold Army including the players’ families were staying in Lusail and there was a tram system and a bustling boulevard, none of which I actually got to see during my stay. We had already done this journey as part of the epic Al Bayt trek for the opening ceremony, and it was simply a turn to the left instead of heading right to the shuttle buses, and we could see the stadium, shaped like a bath tab, in the distance.

This was a massive game today – my first time watching Argentina live – and the South Americans were widely tipped to stamp their authority over the group in this ‘easy’ fixture against Saudi Arabia. My allegiance though lay with the Saudis. The Saudi investment fund had taken over my club Newcastle United only a year ago, and the haranguing of Newcastle fans as a result was only slightly more vocal than the slating of the members of the Fan Leader programme. What exactly was I meant to do though? The mood at St James’ Park is completely transformed since the takeover, I was there the week before, and I am thankful to the Saudis for finally ridding us of the parasitic Mike Ashley from the club after 13 horrible years. The good times are back, and I was secretly hoping that Saudi Arabia could fashion some sort of result against the best supported country in the World Cup.

Lusail stadium would quickly elevate to my number one stadium after finding that the kilometre-long walk had a short-cut for media, which crossed over a no-man’s-land to a dedicated security gate and then the media centre. After printing out my tickets for the next day and grabbing some water to get me through the midday heat, I headed off to the stadium, doubling back and walking around the back of this futuristic structure to the media entrance.

There is a reason that Lusail Stadium was chosen as the venue of the FIFA World Cup final – it is impressively big, the stands going up and up forever and boasting a capacity of almost 89,000. You could almost picture the fans here in 1978, streamers and confetti raining down on the field below as Argentina took out the final of that particular tournament.

I had a seat for this one, in a mixed section containing a lot of Saudi fans who were excited. They seemed hopelessly outnumbered though by Argentina fans, the sky blue and white stripes dominating the surrounds, but there was a dark section of green behind one of the goals. Some Argentina fans had the unlucky position in the full sun, and it was hot. There was a group of Australian media at this one, but we were a minority in this multi-cultural section.

The Saudis had Herve Renard as their coach, a figure who has been heavily involved in African football in the past, and who caused hearts to flutter when he appeared on the sidelines 12 months ago at CommBank Stadium as the Socceroos got away with a goalless draw in the rain in their stuttering qualification quest. The pre-game took the same course as all the pre-games so far; it was flatmate Matt though that pointed out that the flag in the centre of the field was different for each stadium, reflecting the design of the venue.

The organisers would have been going off at the volunteers who brought out the signs, marching out in completely the wrong order – luckily they exited from the field in the correct order, maybe no one would notice. The anthems were amazing, the stadium was packed by the time the countdown began, and today it was impeccably timed and the game got off to a busy start accompanied by raucous noise.

The noise and excitement was terrific

Argentina were nearly ahead after 2 minutes, a low shot well saved and the Argentinian fans were in full voice. Only a few minutes later, from a corner at the same end, a foul in the box prompted the referee to hold play and he ventured over to his little screen to have a look at an incident up close. Two minutes had elapsed since the VAR became involved, as usual it was only those journalists with monitors who could see the potential foul, and the rest of the stadium had to wait patiently without knowing anything other than ‘possible penalty’. The referee indeed gave the penalty and it looked as though Argentina would put Saudi Arabia to the sword after Lionel Messi had stroked the spot kick into the net in front of the Saudi fans.

Somehow though, despite the most one-sided of first halves, the score remained at 1-0. Lautaro Martinez had two goals disallowed for offside, the first one must have been by a fingernail, so despite their utter dominance, the result had not been put to bed and there would always be the chance of a goal to bring the Saudis level.

Once they knew I was a Newcastle United fan, that was it…

Half time was a strange one. Several photographers roamed the section we were in, hoping to photograph all the pretty ladies, and the husbands and boyfriends tolerated it by posing with their other halves. It was an exciteable section to be in, and the beginning of the second half stoked that excitement to maximum levels.

First, only a couple of minutes after the restart, a moment of indecisiveness in the Argentina back line saw two players leave the ball for each other and Saleh Alshehri raced past the last man and tucked a quite beautiful shot past the outstretched hand of Emiliano Martinez and into the corner of the net for a shock equaliser. Any thoughts about Argentina having the majority of supporters in the stadium were dispelled as the stadium came alive. Five minutes later, a truly outrageous goal had Saudi Arabia in the lead. Salem Aldawsari seemed to have fluffed his control of a high ball that took him away from goal; however some incredibly quick feet, a turn and a jink onto his right foot opened up a half-chance and he curled a magnificent shot, from the edge of the area, into the top right-hand corner of the goal with maybe a touch from Martinez to help it on its way. The stadium erupted once more and the Saudi fans in our section were all of a sudden crazily animated. It was a scene of pure joy.

One way traffic, but no way through. Argentina frustrated.

Argentina reacted by making multiple substitutions to try and stir their team to victory. An amazing save by the Saudi keeper Mohammed Alowais somehow denied Nicolas Tagliafico after he diverted a shot on goal from point-blank range. The siege continued, but despite the unbelievable skills of Messi, Alowais was equal to everything. Two moments summed up the game for me.

First, when there was a player down and Saudi Arabia had put the ball out to allow the physio to come and treat the injured player, the Argentinians decided not to throw the ball back to the opposition, a moment of bad sportsmanship that I have only witnessed live once before (Roy Aitken, Port Vale v Newcastle United 1990). That had everyone on their feet shouting at the Argentinian players. Secondly, with the whole crowd now on their feet and with the game at its crescendo, the security in our section were heckled by every Arabic voice when trying to get us to sit back down. Power to the people! No one sat down, it was too exciting.

Injury time was long, and included a very big injury to a Saudi defender – we would later understand why the goalkeeper Alowais was screaming for the physios as soon as it happened – it was no time-wasting tactic. That prolonged the spectacle and there was still time for a great move from Argentina when Messi decided not to pull the trigger when well placed, and the chance disappeared. With it, the points disappeared too as the final whistle brought the stadium to its peak volume and the Saudi players and fans rejoiced.

Today was Australia’s first match day and I was keen to get to Intercontinental Hotel to meet up with the rest of the Socceroos fans, so the next move was a swift exit. Finding that we could go back via the media entrance was amazing, and the shortcut across no man’s land took me almost to the metro station, thus avoiding the almighty queue. Not many stops this time, and I got off at DECC metro station and extended the ten-minute walk to the hotel by taking in the Uruguay team bus departure from their hotel, with a group of Uruguayan fans camped outside cheering the bus off.

I signed up for the five-pint beer deal with food and walked into the Hive bar at the Intercontinental with no idea what to expect. Here we were in an oasis in the desert!

The place was just starting to get pumping. The bar had a tricky wristband system where you’d get one of your five drinks punched out of your wristband. A bit fiddly and open to a bit of abuse, but if that was what we had to do to have a bit of pre-game warm-up, that was fine by me. I was playing catch-up, and it didn’t take long to get into the swing of it, even if the food never materialised – we were used to having no food during the day by now anyway. By now, the old favourites were blasting out, Khe Sahn, Horses, that sort of stuff, and it was as cheesy as it was enjoyable. The TV cameras were there to capture this moment, showing everyone back home that there was absolutely no problem getting a drink in Doha.

We were sensible with our departure time, the pub still packed with green and gold, giving ourselves plenty of time to get to the metro. The mood amongst the Aussies was one of excitement and pride as we finally got to have our turn of doing the metro journey en masse. The volunteers at DECC metro were our capos, shouting “Metro Metro” through their loud hailers, and we answered without prompting “This way!” coining an expression we’d already heard hundreds of times during the first two days. This then transformed into a chant, and the sight and sound of hundreds of Socceroos fans chanting “Metro Metro. This way” down the walkway to the platform was a fabulous moment.

The metro ride was entertaining too. Stickers and toy koalas were handed out to kids, there was plenty of singing and chanting, and both sets of fans were singing when we arrived at Al Wakra. The queue for the shuttle buses was way too long, but we made it with plenty of time to spare. Lots of Australian flag stickers made their way on to French flags. I left the group when we finally arrived at the stadium to go and find the media entrance and it turned out to be a good walk right around the perimeter of the stadium precinct to find the yellow livery of the media entrance opposite the expansive car park.

Once inside, I made a bee-line straight to the media gate and up to the tribunes. Time wasn’t on my side, so I did an about turn after seeing where I would have been sitting and headed back out the media entrance – there was no way I was going to spend such an important game sitting down in the media area. Only a few gates along was the entrance for my fan ticket and I entered and found Michelle in amongst the familiar faces behind the goal. No one was sitting down. The atmosphere was growing. Aus Kit Nerd was trying his best to get the chants going, and he had plenty of support around him, but it was tough going.

Australians and chanting don’t necessarily go together as a natural combination. There is a general reluctance to sing out loud in public for fear of being labelled an idiot. Bringing fans of different clubs where the songbook is much more diverse doesn’t seem to help, with a Socceroos crowd unlikely to sing along to a Melbourne Victory or a Sydney FC tune. As a result, the list of songs is tiny, and we have a long way to go to match most of the world’s bigger nations in this respect. I actually did write a piece along those lines too for the Roar after this game, right here, which did prompt some response; you might want to read on first though…

Two things I will remember about the crowd around us. Firstly there was a lone Frenchman in amongst the yellow shirts, clearly a family member who happened to be French, who was getting horribly heckled from someone way back in the bay – I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but it wasn’t the most friendly of banter and it was definitely an Australian voice. Secondly, there was a really abrasive French fan just to my right who was getting animated and celebrating in our faces. Not cool. Anyway, I digress…

The security guard on the walkway up the middle of our section was being a stickler for the rules, telling us constantly to move over when we spilled slightly into the aisle. The lead-up to the match took on its now iconic schedule, the inflatable world cup, the centre flag, the two team’s flags, and the national anthems. I still remember the French anthem from a former life “… l’étendard sanglant est levé …” that I learned over there, so belted it out to the annoyance of Michelle, but the best was saved for our anthem, which was sung with as much gusto as I’d ever given an anthem. That moment when the trumpets sound at the start to herald the beginning of the anthem always gets me, and it was a proud and teary rendition from everyone clad in yellow and green.

We didn’t know what to expect from this game. France, the world champions, with loads of quality players out through injury, would they succumb to that stupid winners curse of bowing out in the group stages? That was certainly the hope. Australia were the wildcard, coming into the tournament in the last-chance saloon, and not having played a competitive game since our trip to New Zealand in September. Anything could happen.

My match report for the Roar is here, but the moment when Mathew Leckie turned his defender inside out and flashed the ball across the face of the goal into the path of Craig Goodwin at the far post was simply magical. The subsequent devastating finish was totally unexpected up at the far end of the field, and when the ball hit the roof the net, that was the cue for every single Socceroos fan to leap into the air in celebration. It was unbelievable! The Socceroos a goal up against the defending champions, and a goal made in the A-League. Pick that one out, Hugo Loris. The disbelief and joy from the Australian fans was prolonged. Our bank of fans was in full voice for the next twenty minutes. Kylian Mbappe was getting plenty of barracking and was struggling to get space to weave his magic out on the left wing, Australia were doing their best to stem the tide, but it was all France with an occasional foray upfield from the Socceroos.

The lead lasted until midway through the half, and the equaliser was as straightforward a goal as you will ever see. The cross from the left from Lucas Hernandez was straight onto the head of Adrien Rabiot, unmarked and racing in on goal and his header from the edge of the six-yard box was a formality. That was a kick in the teeth, and the players were looking around at each other to work out who should have been marking the goalscorer. The impetus was with the French now, and they took the lead five minutes later when Australia tried to play out from the back. Mat Ryan found Jackson Irvine coming back to receive and he spread the ball out to Nathaniel Atkinson, who had been tasked with keeping Mbappe in check. His touch though was heavy when trying to recycle the ball backwards, goalscorer Rabiot stole the ball, ran on to a flick from Mbappe and the Socceroos defence was nowhere as Olivier Giroud sorted out his feet and rolled the ball into the empty net for 2-1.

Joy and hope had turned into despair and fear within a very short spell, and we couldn’t see a way back into this one with France turning the screw. There were many corners to defend, but with time running out in the first half, a half-chance out of nowhere almost caught out France, a cross from the left headed goalwards by Irvine. Loris was beaten and the ball bounced off the post and we all had our heads in our hands after seeing an unlikely chance go so close.

The half-time whistle allowed me to retrieve my camera from my bag – as I had passed through security at the media gate, I had my laptop and camera, so started to take photos of my fellow Socceroos fans, giving me food for thought for the next game and how I could best capture the game from the fan perspective.

The second half was unfortunately one-way traffic. The bank of French fans up the far end enjoyed all the action, whilst we had slim pickings at our end, save for a corner or two and some bold running down the right. Giroud almost scored a spectacular goal with a flying scissor kick, and it seemed a matter of time before the Socceroos were put to the sword. The killer goal came halfway through the second half, Mbappe’s cross was to no one, but the ball was picked up on the other side and delivered back in, where Mbappe had continued to lurk and he pounced, heading home the cross from close range.

There were still 20 minutes remaining when Mbappe hit the accelerator to breeze past Atkinson, and he delivered a sweet cross onto the head of Giroud who powered the header home. Three headers from four goals, and that’s even with man-mountain Harry Souttar in defence.

Reads the room as well as the APL – Brazilian media infiltrates the Aussie end

One unfortunate moment during the second half, with the Australian fans deflated and fearing a total demolition, saw a Brazilian journalist and fan leader enter the area and start singing Aussie Aussie Aussi Oi Oi Oi. If there’s something that grates on a Socceroos fan more than that chant, a chant that is synonymous with cricket, I’d hate to hear it. Needless to say it was shot down and this misinformed individual left the area thinking he’d done a great thing. The expectation was now for a far heavier defeat. By now Awer Mabil and Garang Kuol were on, but it was still France doing the pressing. There was another good chunk of injury time added to the end of the game that made it uncomfortable, but it was great when we were in possession – they couldn’t score when we had the ball.

I think the Zero refers to the number of sales. He left before even trying to sell to the Aussie fans

The game concluded and the fans all waited to welcome the players, who eventually came across to applaud the support. I had high-tailed it out of the exit and back along to the media entrance, where my accreditation and mixed zone ticket would get me back through the door and down the stairs to the mixed zone. The Australian media was there, quite solemn and quiet as they awaited the three chosen players to filter through from their TV interviews. Aziz Behich took a deep breath before being presented to the waiting Aussie media by Media Manager Bec Trbojevich, and could only point to the little errors that cost them dearly against world class players. They would not be focusing on the opponent now or into the future, and they would be able to brush this off before the game against Tunisia in a few days time. Jackson Irvine was the consummate professional, offering his insight into the game, and praising Craig Goodwin for his goal. He was disappointed at the result, at the header that clipped the post and despite being proud of the players, he reiterated just how disappointed they were as a group.

Applause for the fans, applause for the players. We’re not out yet!

The mixed zone presented choices by now as other players joined the fray and journalists weren’t sure whether they should leave Irvine or who they should interview next. I opted for Benjamin Pavard, the French defender, who seemed very blase about his team going 1-0 down. They were sure of their quality, he said, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have been saying that if that was the result at the end of the game. He seemed a little sure of himself, which I guess he was entitled to be, given the scoreline and the manner of his team’s victory. I left the mixed zone as disappointed as the players, and stepped out into the night to find Michelle. After turning right and walking all the way around the stadium again and finding myself on the outside of the perimeter unable to get back in, we finally found each other back near the shuttle buses.

Tonight we would be staying in Al Wakra for the first time and after negotiating a taxi ride and walking the required 3km to the taxi with the driver, we made our way to the Time Rako hotel and up to the international bar. We checked in our bags to the concierge and enjoyed a well-earned beer that cost an arm and a leg. The presence of smoke in the air, like going back 20 years in Australia, was putrid, and everyone seemed to be having a dart with their drink. Still, just like those days, it only took a short time to get used to it and we stayed until nearly closing before bailing out and heading to the Fanatics accomodation a short Uber ride away. It was all quiet and we were fast asleep within minutes after another massive World Cup day.

Matches attended : 5 of 8
Matches missed : Denmark v Tunisia, Mexico v Poland

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