Today was going to be different. We were at the final round of group stage games, and the kick offs were 6pm and 10pm. That freed up the day and we were free to do whatever we chose. All talk pre-World Cup about Qatar’s cultural offerings pointed us to camel riding, a visit to some faraway fort, sand dune bashing and fishing, all things that sounded like they could have been in Australia, but the one thing that did stand out was Souq Waqif. We had seen this daily on the BeIn Sports TV coverage, and also on SBS where there would always be a TV camera set up in the bustling market, prime people watching and willing interviewees on tap. It was also a place to grab a bargain and also eat some authentic middle eastern delicacies.
With our spare day, Michelle and I made it our aim to do the Souq properly, and we were there just after midday after a leisurely morning at the apartment. It was, as it had been every day, a beautiful clear day, hot but not unbearably so, and the area outside the metro was fairly quiet – perhaps Qatar had a siesta time that we hadn’t known about previously. There were a smattering of small shops at the entrance to the Souq – and I’m using the word Souq as opposed to market, as it’s not quite the same thing – and we went in to the first and hit gold straight away, Michelle keen to replace the sunnies she’d wrecked on a previous night out.
For a country so supposedly strict and controlled, the merchandise here was surprisingly counterfeit, and that was exactly what we were hoping for. There were bargain prices for designer items that looked like the real thing. I’m a little wary of such bargains after previously visiting Bangkok and coming away with a very low quality watch that lasted a week, but you couldn’t really go wrong with sunglasses. The payment process was a little hairy, with no credit card facilities, so we were accompanied to the nearest ATM to withdraw the money. The general safety and security in Qatar meant that the shopkeeper was happy to give us the goods before we went to the ATM, and we finalised the transaction on the street. It all felt a little dodgy, but at the same time it felt incredibly safe; I can’t imagine doing that sort of transaction in Barcelona or Paris without some sort of mob of thieves or a dodgy switcheroo happening with the goods and the shop keeper definitely wouldn’t have let us have the items first.
That foray to the ATM brought us to the main thoroughfare through the Souq and it was busy. The cafes were all full of families and groups of football fans, some enjoying a traditional shisha, that big bong-like contraption that gives you flavoured smoke to swirl around your mouth while you enjoy your coffee. The side-alleys off the main pedestrian street hid all sorts of hotels and the back alleys were like something out of a Jason Bourne movie. It was so beautiful, and as quintessential a middle eastern experience as you could get. It was all so pristine too, all the streets spotless and no place for rubbish or any other signs of real life. It was like a living museum, and everyone seemed to have a calm reverence that made you relax. There was no shouting, loud haggling or bustling; it just felt so laid back.
A cardboard cut-out of Lionel Messi was a big attraction, and the TV cameras weren’t far from it. There were miniature stands for street-sellers that appeared to be constructed from old furniture, and the main mode of transport for the incoming goods was the humble wheelbarrow, lined with a colourful rug to protect the merch.
There were official World Cup emblems throughout, all animals painted in the garish Qatar 2022 colours, and if this had been Australia there would have been a treasure hunt for the kids to find all of the animals, with a sheet of paper telling you all about each one, a stamp to collect and a prize at the end. Here in Qatar there was no room for such nonsense, and whilst they were eyesores, they did give you a reminder that you were here for the football. Whether we saw them all will remain a mystery that I don’t want to be solved.
Inevitably, being around lunchtime, there was no room anywhere to sit and eat. The only seats outside were in full sun, and that was definitely not an option. We had never been overly interested in food since we’d been in Qatar, and had often skipped meals without really noticing, but today surrounded by the sights and smells of the international fare on offer, we would definitely partake. We opted for something quite simple, kebabs with all the trimmings at an upstairs restaurant near the end of the main street, and had to wait a while to get a seat, a small queue managing to self-regulate as people came and went. Everyone was very friendly.
The area where most of the TV cameras were set up was next to the sculpture Le Pouce, a giant gold thumb by the same sculptor Cesar Baldaccini as the one at La Defense in Paris. Someone had managed to stick a Newell’s Old Boys sticker very high up, and that brought that sticker and emblem into our consciousness and we started to see it everywhere. NOB – honestly, we try not to be juvenile, but it’s hard.
Outside the perimeter of the Souq were studios for all the different major international news channels, none of them in use. I guess they’d all come to life once the football was on, but they were very impressive. I’d often wondered if the background was simply superimposed, because you can do that convincingly these days, but no, these were actual studios that had the backdrop of the stone buildings of Souq Waqif.
The little streets were filled with marvellous shops, spilling out on to the walkway. One shop was selling material and rugs, and the colours were brilliant in the sunshine. I don’t think they really sold much there, but it was an amazing thing to look at. A mobile coffee seller with enormous ornate pots strapped to his back did the rounds selling cheap coffee. There was a giant Mexican doll that was a little freaky, and there were people of every nationality simply roaming the streets. Some Iranians were using it as an opportunity to be heard, their country in turmoil due to civil unrest at the strict regime, and they were walking through the Souq chanting ‘Iran’ with a drum. It didn’t seem out of place, and didn’t detract from the serene atmosphere of the area.
There were some big games on today, do-or-die deciders with something at stake. Only Netherlands v Qatar had a low key feel to it, but it was still possible for Qatar to rally for one last push and give the Dutch a nervous passge through to the round of 16. The fans were everywhere, all bedecked in national colours, and as the afternoon wore on, we weren’t the only ones who were doing the Souq and then continuing straight on to the game.
We moved on to the waterfront area and the Corniche, the big boulevard that runs along the waterfront. The whole area was looking like a Grand Prix circuit with barricades everywhere and roads that were closed to everyday traffic. The views of the old fashioned fishing boats with the backdrop of the ultra modern hi-rise buildings of West Bay was quite the contrast, and the giant pearl was as Australian a monument as you could imagine. Coffs Harbour and Goulburn eat your heart out.
We decided to search out the shuttle bus to take us to our first game, Ecuador against Senegal at Khalifa Stadium, instead of yet another metro ride and were pleasantly surprised to find that they were already leaving from the bus terminal next to the Souq to head out to Sport City.
The illusion of Doha being a big city that travelling by metro gives you was again dispelled by this journey, and the big journey of many stops was in fact quite a quick journey by road. The first few kilometres felt like being in any European City with big open boulevards and grand buildings, but the further we got, the density of the buildings thinned out and we were quickly into the suburbs of long straight roads and roadside housing complexes and businesses.
We could see the stadium, but we knew that didn’t mean much and we passed in front of it before it disappeared behind us and we went down a long side road into an empty area where there were makeshift carparks and areas for buses that were designated by bollards and cones. The bus driver seemed to know where to go, but for the uninitiated, this was total confusion. The bus dropped us, and we were ushered by the volunteers ‘This Way’.
And my goodness, this was one hell of a trek. I’d guess at 4km. My feet were already well and truly callused with all the walking in flat shoes, but what’s another long walk when you’ve probably walked as much as you ever have in your life. The golf buggies would go past now and again, carrying the old and the young who wouldn’t cope too well, and we walked past the 2022 building that was completely cordened off. We had to squeeze through a gate to get close for photo purposes, but there was no one around.
There were estimates of between 20k and 30k steps per day at the tournament so far; this was definitely excessive, considering that all we were doing was attending games and using the spectator or media transport to get to and from stadiums. In most instances, like this scenario, the distance from drop-off to stadium was unnecessarily long, and the wide streets would have been able to cater for a hundred times as many people as there actually were. Yes, it was safe and yes, there was no chance of any crowding, but it was certainly over the top to the point of being uncomfortable. Hopefully future World Cups don’t take this approach.
Arriving at the security gate I knew I could bend the rules by using the priority queue. I had my media pass for the next game and also had my laptop and camera, but this one I was here as a fan so the spectator security would be less forgiving. That meant we split up and would meet again after the security queue. Security was a little picky at this one, but I was free to go through after a supervisor was called, and we eventually found each other after a few moments roaming the area between the security gate and the stadium.
We took photos next to the spiral walkway that we fully expected to be walking up again tonight. The stadium looked stunning from the outside, as it had done for each game to date, but tonight in our more relaxed state with no rushing and unusually good time-keeping, we could lap it all up. Our seats were more or less in line with the byline, a great view and high up, but not too high. The category C tickets that we had for all of our fan games had all been excellent, and it was a change from our usual spot directly behind the goals. There were category D tickets apparently, but that wasn’t an option when buying tickets – perhaps that was reserved for the locals.
This evening’s game was a must win for Senegal. Ecuador would go through with a draw after they had drawn with the Netherlands, and it was one or the other. This was cup knockout football in the group stages, an exciting pretext to what was to come, and a scenario that would give context to the way the game was played by both sides.
The pregame routine was immaculate in the wide open space of this stadium, and we could settle in for what could be a World Cup classic, completely against our expectations when we snared the tickets a few months ago in desperation. The game started like it should, with Senegal on the attack. Ismael Jakobs romped down the left and pulled the ball behind the defenders for Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, who had time to pick his spot but the shot went wide. Boulaye Dia then sent a shot wide when he was clean through in the box and held his head in his hands. The stadium was going off, the Senegalese fans had drums and they were using them to maximum effect. The pressure continued and the drums and the chanting intensified, and there was some proper singing from the Senegal fans about half way through the first half that was so good to hear.
When Ismaila Sarr raced into the box with five minutes remaining of the half and was bundled over, there was little suggestion of a foul, but the referee pointed immediately to the spot. We’d need to see a replay to understand why that was a penalty, but it turned out that he did get a toe to the ball before he was unceremoniously knocked off his feet. It did appear that the sole reason for getting the touch was to win the penalty as he had no chance of reaching the ball after the touch, but it was the right decision. Sarr coolly rolled home the penalty and Senegal had one hand on a round of 16 berth.
There were six minutes of injury time, in which one extravagantly-dressed Ecuador fan in a full eagle costume, complete with wings, made it on to the big screen. He was to figure in the half-time show too, interviewed in the crowd. On the front of his costume he had ‘Fan Leader’ proudly displayed. This was a revelation. Obviously Ecuador was more tolerant to the idea of having representative fans at the World Cup at the invite of the Qatar Supreme Committee and this fan seemed pretty proud to be in the Fan Leader program. Oh how different that was to the Australian reaction which was to unleash the tall-poppy scythe, and which had meant we weren’t shouting about it at all.
The half-time show was a little different, we had David Guetta’s I’m Blue and The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights. Perhaps this was a change that came with the final group stage games. We still had the mobile phone torch display though, there were too many good parts to the spectacle that couldn’t be messed with!
The second half started with a reaction from Ecuador. They just needed one goal and the context swung back in their favour. They pushed forward more and Michael Estrada almost sneaked in to guide the ball home, the cross from Purvis Estupinan headed wide by the centre forward. Would this be a story of missed chances?
Midway through the second half, after Ecuador had brought on the marvellously-named Djorkaeff Reasco, they won a corner. The heads went up as the Senegal defence pushed out, and the ball fell for Moises Caicedo, unmarked, who tucked the ball into the almost unguarded net for a dramatic equaliser. He looked offside, but the hands went up in vain – there was a man on the line playing everyone onside who had failed to heed the memo of the rest of his defence. This was fantastic drama. Ecuador were going through, they had bossed the second half, but there were still 20 minutes left.
Roughly two minutes later, Senegal pushed forward and won a free kick. The ball was swung into the box from the right, it hit Felix Torres on the back as he stumbled which diverted the ball into the path of the unmarked Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who gleefully smashed home a brilliant volley to stun the crowd. He raced over to the corner beneath us as we celebrated another incredible piece of drama. Now it was Senegal going through!
The crowd of 44,569 was close to capacity, and it did feel pretty full despite being one of those stadiums that has wide gangways between sections. There was still plenty of time for more drama in this one, and we did see Ecuador pumping long balls into the box, the final moments seeing an attempt at an outrageous overhead kick, but a free kick was awarded for a foul. The final whistle sounded and the Senegal players dropped as one to their knees. The subs ran onto the field to celebrate, while the super cool Aliou Cisse, who had become more and more animated against his usual placid self, was led to the bench for a good sit down.
What a crescendo to Group A, and we were thankful that we were here instead of at the Qatar v Netherlands game that ultimately didn’t mean anything in the context of this game. We knew that our journey to the next game was going to be tight, with only two hours until kick off, so we were out of the stadium swiftly and had to relive the massive walk back to find a shuttle bus to the next stadium, our favourite Ahmed Bin Ali. We did this with no real knowledge of the spectator shuttles, of how frequently they went or if they ran only until a certain time, but we were relieved to see a bus waiting, and the volunteers hurried us up as it was just about to leave. That was some relief and we could sit back and take in the journey as we joined up with all the traffic leaving the car park and sped out onto the highway.
The traffic thinned out as we left the area of the stadium, but after taking a turn onto the next major road, the traffic started to snarl up again. The distance between the stadiums was not great, but this one might cause us some issues as there were cars everywhere. The tendency for locals to use their cars was high; I’m sure we’ll see that in July 2023 when the Women’s World Cup comes to Sydney and the families who never take public transport insist on taking their petrol-guzzlers through peak hour and wonder why they get caught out.
We still had a good 40 minutes before kick off and we were definitely close to the stadium. We could see it in the distance, and we could see huge Mall of Qatar next door. The bus though was being directed by volunteers and was having to battle the cars from left hand lane to right hand lane and back to react to the different signals being given on ground level.
We eventually made it down the back of the Mall of Qatar, where we had been just the other day, and people power took over. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus and everyone got off. This was not the shuttle bus area. We could see the crowds hurrying towards the security gate on the other side of a big fence, but we couldn’t see how to get there. The bus was holding up all the traffic, and the poor driver clearly had no idea where to go next, and everyone on the bus just wandered in the general direction of the crowd, with a view to joining the throng at the next break in the fence. Except there was no break in the fence.
People started vaulting the fence. Michelle was adamant that she wasn’t vaulting the fence. There was no other way through. Michelle vaulted the fence, and she did so with such grace that everyone else had the confidence to leap over it too. It was a comical moment that underlined the fact that this was being run by volunteers on the ground and that not many people actually knew how to deal with a situation where something went slightly wrong. We knew exactly which gate we were going to – the one a kilometre from the stadium, and time was starting to tick. I was media for this one, Michelle had her ticket thanks to our flatmate Dave who had secured a couple of last minute tickets yesterday, and we had to split up to get through security. I could get through easily through the priority gate, while Michelle had to endure the long spectator lines and that’s where we left each other. There were a lot of refreshed people, the English fans notoriously rubbish on the booze and the Welsh fans probably coming from The Hive where they had spent the afternoon on the five-pint vouchers. There was a bit of unpleasantness in the stadium precinct, one pissed up English fan giving a volunteer a serve for no reason, but in the main it was all light-hearted banter between the two sets of fans. The self-deprecating Welsh fans knew that tonight was a tall order and that only an unlikely handsome victory over the English would give them any chance of qualification.
I made my way up to the media tribune, knowing the way quite well by now, and took my spot in the last vacant desk. As always I was a mess of sweat from racing up the stairs, but the cool airconditioning coming from under the seats was very welcome and I was just in time for the national anthems. There’s nothing like a “God Save The King” (okay it was always Queen when I used to sing it) for someone who grew up in England to raise the hairs on your arms and give you goose-bumps. The Welsh national anthem is a new favourite of mine though and never fails to hit the spot, the rousing end of the song always belted out by the players and the fans.
England v Wales was always going to have an extra little bit of spice as one of the traditional “home international” fixtures, and today would surely be the same. As I had a desk and a fairly thorough knowledge of the England players and most of the Welsh players by now, I decided to try and produce a match report right at the final whistle and send it through to The Roar. That was unnecessary pressure, but it was something that I was interested to know if I could pull off as quickly as those writing at home. Not having the commentary to help out, but benefiting from the live action and the view of the whole field, as well as more replays than on TV, this could be a good indicator as to whether or not I could do this role with some consistency in the future.
Marcus Rashford should have scored within ten minutes as a changed England team pressed, he was played in by Harry Kane but couldn’t beat Danny Ward, drafted in for the suspended Wayne Hennessey. Harry Maguire was finding himself playing as a forward at times, but his skill level just didn’t seem to match is determination and desire. There was a head injury to Welsh player Neco Williams that took the sting out of the game, after getting the ball belted into the side of his head. It looked serious and he wobbled off for assessment, another “God save the King” echoing around the stadium to fill the down time. Phil Foden blasted over a chance after a trick or two down the England right, before Williams went down again and this time he had to go off, the risk of concussion too great. The fans were noisy, we’d had no goals, but England were looking in control at the break.
I thought I knew where Michelle was in the stadium – turns out I was looking in the wrong place. Half time was just long enough for a bathroom break and a water (no lid) from the outlet just behind our seats before we had a special guest – Chesney Hawkes, the pop star of the 90s who had a massive hit with The One and Only, came out and played his song in the corner of the stadium. It was surreal, and it did suggest that your average World Cup fan was in the over 40 age bracket, anyone younger would have had no idea who this was.
The second half was a totally different proposition. England won a free kick early on when Foden was brought down. The resulting free kick took a long time to organise, the referee doing the usual thing of waiting a few seconds before blowing the whistle and then holding things up to talk to those players jostling in the box. Up stepped Marcus Rashford to bend the ball perfectly over the wall and into the net for a devastating goal, right in front of the bank of England fans behind the goal. The game had woken up, and Rashford was at it again two minutes later when his hassling caused Wales to cough up the ball down the right. A low cross by Harry Kane evaded everyone in the box and in came Foden at the far post to smash the ball home, Jude Bellingham already celebrating before Foden had hit it.
Wales looked to fight back, Daniel James cut inside from the left and hit a lovely shot just past the fingertips of Jordan Pickford and around the post, then giant centre-forward Keiffer Moore shot from a long way out, Pickford keeping his eye on it to force it wide for a corner. There was still a long way to go, and Wales were giving a good account of themselves; however they were undone by a classic long ball, sub Calvin Phillips with a great ball over the top for Rashford. His control was superb, he took on one then two defenders, cutting in from the right, and unleashed a shot with his left foot that Ward could only deflect into the goal for three.
England could have had more after Jack Grealish replaced Rashford, and Jude Bellingham’s shot was parried, the ball falling just behind Foden and the chance was gone. The England fans sang “that’s why you’re going home” as Wales missed the target with their late chances, but the best was saved until added time, when a Foden corner was headed back across goal by Harry Maguire and John Stones leant back and thought of England as his shot went sailing over the bar instead of into the net, a dreadful miss that just about swept Maguire’s forays forward in the first half under the carpet.
England were still attacking when the game was brought to an end, Sweet Caroline played over the PA, a song borrowed from the much more successful England women’s team. The Wales fans serenaded their players with another one of their gorgeous hymns and all was good in the world. Wales had bowed out gracefully, England had powered through to the Round of 16 as expected and we were yet to find out what happened in the other game of the night. It didn’t matter to this one, but we’d find out later on when we caught up with the action on TV.
After finishing off the match report and sending it (read it here, it’s quite good!) I was eager to get to the Mixed Zone for this one. I had started to really enjoy this, but was always struck that nothing too noteworthy would come out of the media interviews unless they were handled by expert journalists. It may be a sweeping generalisation, but the journalists not from one of the countries playing always asked irrelevant questions that were part of a broader story they were covering, whereas the home journalists were more interested in the here and now.
For this mixed zone, I had time to listen in to three players. Harry Maguire thought it was a great performance and that they controlled the game well. It was a great night for everyone involved and he was pleased for Marcus Rashford, that he’d found his form. When pressed on Rashford, he said that he spoke with him a lot. That was ground-breaking stuff, absolutely nothing to embellish a story of the evening’s game and a few of us gave puzzled looks at the questioning about his Manchester United teammate.
Next out was Calvin Phillips. It was his debut tonight, and when asked how it went, he said he was still pinching himself. When asked about his assist, he said that it wasn’t really an assist as Rashford had too many touches after it. That was a good line. Collectively he said the squad was very happy with the way things had gone, and when asked if anything was said at half time to change things, he gave an emphatic ‘No’. They had so much possession, it was bound to come at some point. When asked about Senegal in the round of 16, he said he was looking forward to it – they had done so well after losing Sadio Mane. That was more like it. Things to take away. You could almost write multiple tabloid newspaper articles from that.
The final player was Wales’ Rubin Colwill, who had come on in the last ten minutes. He said they knew they were a good team and that this might be a transition period as there were a lot of players over 30 years old. This was pretty much standard responses to loaded questioning, and there was nothing to be gained from that one.
There weren’t any other players waiting to come through from the TV interviews, so I had either missed them while I was caught up with the other players, or they were taking their time to come through. I wasn’t going to hang around, but had to dash over to the media centre to print out my tickets for the following day, which included a mixed zone for Australia v Denmark and a cracker between Argentina and Poland.
I was feeling pretty tired, the long days taking their toll. Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium was like a second home, and I knew the tricks. I could get through the security gate out of the stadium precinct instead of following the crowds, who had long since disappeared. That took me past the volunteers area, where I could get through a gate and miss all of the queues, arriving at the door of the metro to join the line waiting to go up to the metro. That saved me a lot of time and walking, and I might be able to catch up with Michelle and Dave. When I got to the metro platform I discovered they were still way behind in the queue after doing the ridiculous walk around the world.
A pit stop at Lulu’s and I had some provisions for the morning’s breakfast of champions, as well as stocking up on bottled water, and Michelle and Dave were walking past when I came out. We caught the controversial end to USA v Iran on TV and that was a massive talking point, but were in bed relatively early, some time between 2am and 3am. Another crazy day filled with the world game and two more great international football games under my belt. This could not come to an end. Come on Aussie!
Matches attended : 19 of 36
Matches missed : Netherlands v Qatar, Iran v USA