Ten minutes before the first World Cup held in the Middle East begins the prospect of watching Ecuador’s Enner Valencia put Qatar to the sword seems remote. “Sorry, sir, we’re full,” says the maître d’ of Desert Rose, one of the few restaurants showing the game in Doha’s Souq Waqif. Their outdoor screens can be viewed from the pavement, however. “Sorry, sir, you can’t stand there,” says a polite but firm security guard. “Move along, sir.”
Moving along through the bustling alleyways and squares there is little evidence to support the assertion of Qatar’s head coach, Félix Sánchez, that this will be “an extraordinary day like no other”. At least not in Souq Waqif, a rare example of Qatari architecture in Doha where market stalls and shisha lounges abound and TV stations from around the globe have set up studios for that authentic backdrop (Souq Waqif was renovated in 2006).
The Bulgaria great Hristo Stoichkov brings a touch of World Cup authenticity by conducting an interview near a huge golden thumb. Nearby three Mexico fans in Arab dress, including one in a wrestling mask, are appearing on local TV. Otherwise there are more journalists searching for World Cup fans than fans — local or otherwise — looking to watch the opening game of what Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, would contest is a ground-breaking World Cup. Old men push wheelbarrows through the streets and the pavement cafes are mainly filled with locals smoking shisha pipes.
It was a different and more disturbing picture at the Fifa Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park further up the Corniche. The venue has an official capacity of 40,000 but for the second day since it opened there were chaotic scenes at the venue. Organisers allowed too many fans to enter the site before kick-off. One report estimated that double the capacity had tried to gain entry. They were kept in a holding area between the main festival park and the perimeter entrance before being shepherded back out.
“It was dangerous,” one fan carrying a child aged nearly four, who had exited the holding area, said. “They let too many people in. We never made it into the main area and I was glad to leave.” Police took about 45 minutes to clear the excess fans amid angry scenes. Another headache for Fifa, which has somehow managed to add to the controversies surrounding the tournament in recent days.
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Fans are encouraged to descend on Al Bidda Park — where Fifa sponsors such as Budweiser get to sell their wares, alcoholic or zero (taste) — because options to immerse themselves in the World Cup experience elsewhere in Doha are complicated to say the least. Many visitors arrived at their expensive hotels to find the price does not include access to watching matches on TV. Many hotels balked at paying the host broadcaster BeIN Sports a subscription fee of 100,000 Qatari riyals (£23,105 at today’s exchange rate) to show the World Cup in their restaurants, bars and rooms. The same goes for owners of private villas and apartments that are being rented out to fans from around the world. Off to the Fifa Fan Festival it is then, providing you have an official Hayya pass.
The appropriately named ‘La Boca’ is another restaurant showing the World Cup opener in Souq Waqif. But elsewhere, and despite a few cheers when Ecuador’s early goal was disallowed, it is Sunday business as usual. On the hour’s walk to the Souq via the lively Al Jazeera Street there is the occasional sight of Qataris embracing a moment of huge sporting significance for the Arab world. Families also gather in front of a large screen in Millennium Plaza —children, women and men all dressed in Qatar kit — and cheer every time the national team’s coach appears on screen en route to Al Bayt Stadium almost 50kms north of Doha.
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Outside a pet shop near Souq Waqif Hassan and five of his friends sit watching a laptop screen buffer repeatedly during the opening ceremony. Their despair over the Wifi signal does not detract from their warm hospitality. A plastic chair and a coffee is brought out of the shop for the passing journalist from England. “This is the biggest day in the world and it is happening here. You must understand how important that is,” says Hassan. “Whatever happens in the game, we have already won.” Qatar might say that was the point. The laptop starts buffering again.