Wed 23/11/2022 : Japan conquer as Canada waste a golden chance

The din coming from the mosque next door to the Fanatics accommodation in Al Wakra at 4.30am woke us up. It was crystal clear and very insistent. That didn’t stop us from closing our eyes and sleeping for another six hours or more, and it was afternoon by the time we were ready to face the day and headed out. We caught the shuttle again to the metro, standing by the bus stop before the bus came the other way on the other side of the road and we got on for the mammoth journey to Al Wakra metro station, stopping at every stop along the way through town and through the back streets.

We were back home in our apartment at the Seven Pearls complex an hour later and ready to get on with our day. This one was going to be interesting. We had secured tickets to Spain v Costa Rica as fans, but it clashed with an opportunity for Michelle to attend the Fan Leaders’ Thank You dinner at the Westin hotel. I had also applied for two games through the media accreditation that also clashed with Spain v Costa Rica, so we offloaded those tickets to willing recipients in our group and everything fell into place.

At this stage I should mention how the Fan Leader programme came about and what it was. I did write an article for the Roar about it here, but didn’t go into too much detail. Social media was scathing of it, but they had no idea what it was and how it came about, so they all just took the hook that it was a paid trip and that anyone taking a paid trip to Qatar was accepting blood money and as corrupt and immoral as the hosts. Let me try and fill you in from the beginning, at least from the perspective of someone who suddenly became involved.

The Fan Leader network was an idea floated over a year ago; Michelle had been put forward to the Supreme Committee as a long-standing and very active Socceroos fan to participate in a series of online meetings and forums with the view of improving the experience of the everyday fan at the World Cup in Qatar. There was no real incentive to join; the participants would receive a steady stream of media that the Supreme Committee hoped would be promoted on social media. Reading between the lines, the fan leader with the biggest social media interaction might be considered for a trip to Qatar, whether that be to a practice event beforehand or to the World Cup itself, that was not clear.

We had a chat about it. What was there to lose by becoming a Fan Leader? The Socceroos were looking shaky in qualification, but it was something that could be interesting and would only lead to a better World Cup experience for all. Without much further thought, Michelle signed up, and there were others around Australia that also took up the opportunity. Every now and again there would be an online meeting, there would be discussion groups and every so often Michelle would post some seemingly irrelevant social media content about the World Cup in Qatar. The Socceroos by now had really stuffed things up and going to Qatar was very unlikely and low on the agenda.

What happened in June at Bin Ali Stadium was the stuff of legends and all of a sudden the Socceroos were at the World Cup and the idea of going to Qatar became a lot more attractive. We secured tickets, then booked and paid for our trip, tagging on side trips to the start and end of the World Cup and come September we were excitedly awaiting the start of the tournament in eight weeks’ time. The centenary game in Auckland now had real importance and we booked up and made the round trip via Brisbane to New Zealand to send off the Socceroos to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It was so exciting. That’s when the landscaped changed.

Michelle, as one of the fan leaders, had been involved in a discussion with the Supreme Committee of Qatar; they wanted to invite 50 die-hard fervent football fans of every country to the World Cup opening ceremony, and, get this, they would pay for flights, accommodation and spending money for every person who took the offer. Was this for real? The Supreme Committee seemed to be an organisation that shot from the hip, making decisions on a whim, and this was a wild proposition. After all, everyone who really wanted and could afford to go to Qatar had already booked up. The Green and Gold Army and Fanatics tours were filling up and flights had been hard to source and were expensive. Who would the 50 people be? The task was to find 50 people, whether they were in Qatar already, booked up to go or not, who would be willing to proudly represent their country on November 20th. There was a programme of events too that those 50 people would be expected to take part in, but very little detail about what it was, and all representatives would be expected to fly in from Australia a few days before the tournament and be at the World Cup for at least the group stages.

Okay, so you’ve got the power in your hands to assemble a squad of Socceroos fans at less than 8 weeks notice. Who do you invite and who will be available for such a length of time at such a late stage? There were those who flatly refused, citing the moral argument, and fair play for making that stance clear. There were those who had already booked something else for that time of year and there were some who just couldn’t get the time off. This was an offer that sounded too good to be true anyway, and perhaps it was. This small group of volunteers had been asked to increase their group to 50 with a few weeks’ notice, and it was exciting to hear of the increasing number of proper Socceroos fans who took up the offer until the group was finalised, with the deadline roughly 4 weeks out from the World Cup.

The parameters kept on changing daily. The rules around flights coming in and out of Australia were relaxed so some of the members could fly in and out of different countries. Everyone was asked to confirm and reconfirm their required flights and provide the same information over and over again in different questionnaires – so much so that it felt as though the information was simply being lost in space. The three original Australian fan leaders, unpaid volunteers, were playing the role of travel agent, liaising with all participants as well as the Supreme Committee. The agenda for the two weeks was also fluid, and it was mainly things being cancelled. In fact, only a week or so out, the only item on the agenda that was mandatory was the opening ceremony. This looked like a very expensive exercise to make sure the opening ceremony had pockets of fans from each country, but we were not complaining; the majority of the group were concentrating on securing tickets to games to make this a memorable trip.

One supporter, very active on social media in different guises, who had initially accepted the offer and was treating the Fan Leaders, those initial volunteers, as a full-time travel agency to organise their trip with a series of demands, suddenly pulled out when the Fan Leader network went viral in the press. The uproar was widespread at the story as it hit the news. This supporter’s much-publicised withrawal indirectly led to the offer of a daily allowance of $68 per person being removed, and you can imagine how that went down, and how that simple act of self-righteous self-promotion cost everyone else on the trip $1,000, money that would have otherwise been spent on tickets to games. Bravo! Saved the Supreme Committee a hell of a lot of money, and instead of Qatari money being spent in Qatar it was Australian money being spent there.

All the while, we kept our flight bookings and Fanatics accommodation – after all the ever-changing agenda and now high-profile media onslaught was keeping us all on our toes, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the whole thing whipped away as quickly as it had been announced. The final Fan Leader group began flying out to the World Cup on November 17th and it was so exciting to see the Whatsapp group lighting up with thrilled fans making their way to various airports and meeting up with fellow fans. This programme had allowed a number of real Socceroos fans, who were initially priced out of attending the World Cup, to make the journey and that, for me at least, was a beautiful thing.

Being back at our apartment near Hamad Hospital was great; it felt like being home. Plus it was central to everything and only a short walk from the metro. I left Michelle, who was securing a case of Heinekens from an Aussie local in exchange for a jar of gluten free vegemite (what a deal!), and caught the metro via Msheireb back out to Sport City where we had taken in the England vs Iran game two days previously; by now I knew my way around.

Driverless spage-age trains. Very cool.

The entertainment was pumping, the ever-popular male dancers who flung themselves into the air in unison, a band playing on the stage outside the metro, African dancers full of colour and vibrance. Everyone seemed to have a better grasp of how it all worked too, the security checks were slicker, volunteers knew where things were, and I knew where to go for the media entrance and took the time to grab a bite to eat at the media centre cafe, which was most welcome given the lack of food being consumed on this trip so far.

I need to clarify at this point my use of the word ‘volunteer’. I have used it to encompass all staff, inside and outside the stadium, from those who point you in the right direction or use their flashing batons to hold you up to make the queues run safely, all the way to those people checking tickets and Hayya cards at security to the person on the field pushing one of the pyrotechnic boxes behind the inflatable World Cup when kick off is due in three minutes. Whether these people were actually paid staff I do not know. Most of the volunteers were from overseas, the level of English spoken ranged from none whatsoever to native speakers. If I use the word volunteer with regards to stadium workforce, I use it loosely.

The exit to the media centre to the stadium area had one feature I hadn’t noticed two days ago, and that was the ‘drone airport’. A series of drones came in to land and then took off again from a fenced off area, the skilled pilots easing their aircraft onto the tarmac with unerring precision. It was quite impressive to see in action, and these weren’t miniature drones like you might see down the park, these were hefty machines that could carry serious equipment.

My media ticket said Desk, which was awesome, and I knew the way this time, around the hidden corner and up the stairs instead of waiting for the lift. Jurgen Klinsmann was heading in, and I’m pretty sure Keisuke Honda was waiting for the lift as I bounded up the stairs. I installed myself at my desk at the very back of the media tribune, a long way from the action but it was still a cracking view of the action.

The inflatable World Cup was conspicuous in its absence as the now traditional pre-game took a strange twist. The biggest roar during the team line-up announcements was for Thomas Muller, which I hadn’t appreciated previously. The call for lights down and get your flashlights out didn’t really work as the sun was still beaming, but the emergence of the players and the national anthems got everyone fired up in a full house. The countdown to kick-off was done right, the game kicking off as the countdown finished with impeccable timing.

The Japanese fans gave us good noise early on from their orderly cheer squad, but it was Germany that did all the attacking. It was with some surprise then that Japan swept up field and scored, a goal similar to Craig Goodwin’s from the night before, alas it was chalked off for a clear offside with no need to go to VAR. The strangely fussy referee continued to faff at corners, it’s becoming a little irritating how often they stop the play to sort out the jostling – just let it happen! Germany were bullying their opponents, sometimes the Japanese players seemed to bounce off their opponents. The Mexican wave, traditionally reserved for matches where nothing is happening, reared its ugly head very early on, and did a few laps of the stadium.

Germany won a penalty when keeper Shuichi Gonda tripped his man David Raum when trying to retrieve the ball and Manchester City star Ilkay Gundogan stroked home the spot kick. This served simply to stoke the Japan fans and the volume went up and they continued with their infectious chanting for an extended remix. A further Mexican wave accompanied the final moments of the first half and Germany thoroughly deserved their lead at the break, that could have been more – they had a goal ruled out for offside and had kept the Japanese goalkeeper very busy.

Half time, three teams in action, the Germany subs, the Japan subs and the groundspeople.

The second half opened with a great flowing move for Germany by Jamal Musiala that ended with him blazing over, and that kick-started the comeback. The pressure went up from Japan and their fans increased the volume, especially when a near post cross was flashed wide in a thrilling move.

Two small birds flew through the crowd and chirped as they landed back high in the stand, quite an unusual sight; it was noticed by a lot of people in the crowd who had perhaps been starved of nature in the World Cup so far.

Gundogan raced onto a neat ball through the middle and hit the outside of the post with a side-foot shot. The Mexican wave started yet again as Japan started to threaten; a brilliant raking ball down the right was headed inside and the striker chose to control instead of shooting, these chances were being wasted. Both teams were up for this, it was all action in the centre of the park, and it was Japan who finally struck next, after a deflected shot was brilliantly pushed away by Manuel Neuer. Japan put the pressure on in midfield, play went out left and the cross-shot was brilliantly parried, but the rebound rifled home by Ritsu Doan. The Japan bench raced on to the field to celebrate. The game was now wide open with less than 15 minutes to go, as entertaining a spectacle as we’d seen so far in the World Cup.

And then came the winner, a brilliant touch to take the ball out of the air from a raking through ball, and Takuma Asano took another touch and rifled a shot into the roof of the net for 2-1. Amazing skill and an amazing goal. Japan’s fans sang their Nippon song relentlessly. They weren’t just holding on to the lead, they were keen for more. Seven minutes of injury time was excessive, and Japan had the opportunity to really waste some time, but chose instead to try and attack. Too honest, these guys, sometimes. Neuer appeared up front for the last two corners, but it was in vain. This was an incredible result on par with the Saudi win against Argentina, and the Japanese bench raced onto the field on the final whistle to celebrate with their team.

What a result! Japan against all odds!

The volunteers and what looked like some of the ‘fake fans’ congregated at the end of the game for a debrief as the chequered stadium seating was revealed, everyone else having left. There was cheering and shouting, as if it was someone’s birthday. Whether or not this showed that some of the fans were not real or whether it was simply the Japanese fans and the volunteers getting together after cleaning up the stadium, it was a lovely moment.

End of game debrief and party.

I had left my exit from the stadium quite late by intention – no need to get stuck in the mad rush to the metro, and the media shuttle was long gone. It was good to have time though to write up some of the game and it was quite peaceful.

Back out in the stadium forecourt, it was dark, and there were still loads of people around. The entertainment was still going on and the queue for the metro was still real. The Japanese fans were in celebratory mode, and the TV cameras were out in force for anyone wearing Japan colours.

I was heading back to Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, scene of the USA v Wales game two days ago; at the change of metro line at Msheireb, when the doors opened and the Japan fans got off the train, there was an impromptu round of applause from everyone on the platform. What a lovely moment that underlined the support that the underdog had at the tournament, and there was a sense of community between fans, happy to celebrate each others’ successes.

By the time I reached the stadium, I had already decided that this was the game for the workers. It was a totally different crowd – there seemed to be a high percentage of locals on the metro, decked out in Canada or Belgium shirts, with perhaps a slight bias towards Canada. Nothing wrong with that – if Qatar could fill their stadiums with locals to maintain the atmosphere, then so be it. The free flags, a feature of this tournament, was a great idea to add colour and allow fans to show their allegiance – that was until they ran out inevitably. I was still quite early here for this one, so secured my Canada flag – the only reason I was going for Canada is thanks to my old Canadian mate Thomas who showed me around his wonderful country almost thirty years ago. We played together in the same team in France and he is as much of a football tragic as me.

There was time to pop in to the media centre for a subsidised water, where I was allowed to keep the cap, and I remembered where the media entrance was, tucked away around a corner behind the fire truck. There was massive support from the Canada fans at the end of the stadium, and the ubiquitous ‘ooh aah Canada’ rang out loudly. We all know that Canadian fans are like cool Americans, and even their chants were cooler than their North American cousins.

I was blessed with a desk again for this one, and took my position up high in the media tribune, my Canadian flag on show. Matt from the ABC turned up all flustered after he and Chris from FA were caught in the never-ending walk that late-comers were forced to endure at this stadium, but it was all worth it.

The mystery of the missing inflatable World Cup continued – it was simply not there. Perhaps they had retired it now and it had been reserved for the opening days of fixtures, never to be seen again. The rest of the pre-game build-up was the same though and it had a familiarity like a comfortable pair of shoes and the national anthems were rousing.

The game got underway with early half chances for both teams. It was noted though that there was nothing coming from the Belgium fans, who had remained quiet throughout the pre-game and were clearly not interested in making noise. There was good strength shown by the Canadians to send their Belgium counterparts tumbling and when they won their first corner after six minutes, the Canada fans became animated. Their country had never scored a goal at the World Cup, three defeats at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico a harsh lesson that they would need to learn from. They were up against household names from the Premier League here, and it wouldn’t be any easier.

The corner fell for Tajon Buchanan who had time to take a touch and fire on goal. The shot took a deflection and Thibaut Courtois grabbed the looping ball, but Buchanan was adamant there was a handball. The referee was summoned to the monitor. The usual result of such a moment is the award of a penalty and sure enough the referee signalled to the spot and harshly booked Yannick Carrasco who couldn’t have known much about it.

Alphonso Davies stepped up confidently but his penalty was too slow and too close to Courtois who blocked the shot and Jonathan David completely fluffed the rebound, Davies possibly putting him off as they both went for the ball, and the ball sailed over. Absolute agony for Canada. The Belgium fans were suddenly in full voice. Belgium then went up the field and butchered a great chance when they had men over, left back Kamal Miller doing enough to put off Michy Batshuayi who fired over.

Belgium then gave the ball away in their area, Buchanan went down but it had already been ruled offside and a second penalty was avoided. At the other end, Belgium looked slick on the break, but it was Canada pressing again when defender Alistair Johnston just kept on running and was unconvincing in his attempt to con the referee with a tumble in the area. The ball fell to David who got the ball back to Johnston, straight back on his feet, and his fierce shot was fisted away by Courtois and Belgium survived again.

Davies looked a class act for Canada, and Canada kept coming, Richie Laryea crossing low and David smashing over the bar from in front. Surely one of these chances would go in for Canada, they were just lacking the final application, and were starting to become self-conscious of their shooting, choosing to cross instead of firing in the efforts from range as they had been early in the half. There was yet another shout for a penalty when Laryea appeared to get his trailing ankle trod on – this one looked like a penalty on the replays on the monitor in front of us, the rest of the stadium not aparty to a replay so unaware of what was being checked. This one wasn’t given and it was a surprise.

After all that Canada pressure and their siege of the Belgium penalty area, it was route one that caught them out. They had already had a warning of the long-ball game, and it was Toby Alderweireld who launched a ball forward, this time to Batshuayi, who outpaced Miller and finished with a thumping finish from right in front. Such a simple goal and definitely not one for the football purists.

The entertainment wasn’t over though, and a glorious low cross from the right in to Buchanan saw him blaze over from six yards. Perhaps it wasnt going to be Canada’s day. The pressure continued right up to half time and it was with disbelief that Canada went into the tunnel without a goal to their name.

Ooh aah Canada, I said ooh aah Canada

The second half was more of the same – Canada showed some great skill. A brilliant nutmeg by Stephen Eustaquio saw him cross but David headed wide under no challenge whatsoever. This was now getting silly, and Canada were wasting all of their chances. Eustaquio again advanced to take aim, but his shot went wildly wide.

The game was opening up and the challenges were flying in; Batshuayi chose the wrong option when well placed. Thomas Meunier, playing in a phantom of the opera mask, picked up a yellow card for bashing his player to the ground. Belgium stuffed around and conceded a corner with a stupid move and Amadou Onana was booked for whacking an opponent in the neck. Laryea smashed a good chance wide.

Belgium had a great chance midway through the second half, Kevin De Bruyne riding a challenge on the right to advance, and his clever ball in to Batshuayi was expertly read by Laryea who blocked a great chance for 2-0. Onana showed some outrageous skill to turn his man – then battled hard to win a tackle in the same move. He definitely looks like some player. The Canada fans were in good voice again – their contingent was as big as the Wales section from two nights ago and ‘ooh aah Canada’ rang around the stadium again as Eustaquio again provided the delivery for sub Cyle Larin to head goalwards but Courtois saved easily.

The crowd was announced as 40,432, well shy of capacity, but still a great crowd. For some reason Canada took off Eustaquio, who had been one of the stars of the show, and shortly afterwards, De Bruyne set off on a Gundogan-style run through the middle, but his shot was gloriously high and wide.

Canada ended the game on the offensive – a late corner was wasted and they showed a little negativity, turning back instead of launching the ball long into the box for one last effort on goal. There were 5 minutes of added time, which was quite puzzling as there had not been a single stoppage in play in the second half for anyone to receive treatment, but I guess at 30 seconds a substitution, of which there were many, that probably gives us a clue as to why.

The final whistle sounded and Canada knew they had wasted a golden opportunity here.

Belgium had dodged a bullet, and the stats of 22 shots to 9 in favour of Canada suggested correctly that the result was not a reflection of the play. By now it was after midnight, and I made my way back through the heavy crowd to the Mall of Qatar metro station and was home by 2am after picking up some much needed water and bread from the Lulu supermarket. Michelle filled me in about her night at the Westin – the Brazilian members of the Fan Leader network were staying there and there were rumours that the players were staying there too. In the end, it was a great feed and there were presentations to each of the countries’ leaders, but the rooftop bar showing the football was more enticing and that’s where a lot of people ended up, and the Spain game that we had passed up ended up producing some of the best football so far at the tournament.

This had been day four of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and already I was feeling like a seasoned journalist, forging ahead with a plan to see as much football as possible and to make the most of this unique World Cup situation that I found myself in. Tomorrow saw one game as a fan, back at Al Janoub Stadium, and one game at Lusail as media. Tomorrow also saw a media v staff game planned at Socceroos training facility, a 7.30am start. It was 3.30am by the time I’d found my football shorts and a pair of socks and laid them out ready for the morning. This would be my first time at Aspire Academy and I was looking forward to seeing the talent on show in this crunch clash in the World Cup calendar. All this football action was unrelenting, but such a thrill.

Matches attended : 7 of 12
Matches missed : Morocco v Croatia, Spain v Costa Rica

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