It was day three of the Qatar World Cup before the first real talking point emerged — at least when it comes to the football. Argentina, second favourites for the tournament, suffered a humiliating defeat against Saudi Arabia, one of the lowest ranked teams.
“We expected to lose three or four to zero,” said Thamer Jamal, 35, a Saudi chemist who with his brother had driven over the border to watch the game in Doha. “Those last few minutes” — with the Saudis holding a precarious 2-1 lead — “I’ve never been stressed like this in my life.”
Unable to secure tickets for Tuesday’s game, the pair made their way to Fifa’s official fan festival, held on a patch of open tarmac between Doha’s seafront and the skyscrapers of West Bay. A few thousand spectators had gathered for the lunchtime kick-off — including Asian migrant workers wearing blue and white replica Argentina shirts emblazoned with the name of the star player, Lionel Messi. They would leave disappointed.
The festival is meant to be a focal point for those visiting Qatar but not attending matches — and a chance to address the pre-tournament complaint that this World Cup, held in a country with no football tradition, would be lacking in atmosphere.
The open venue, which can hold 40,000 people, mixes game screenings with musical performances and food stalls. During the opening game, the festival attracted such a crowd that riot police were deployed to help keep control.
But not everyone has been impressed with what Qatar has to offer visitors. “I’ve been to a lot of fan fests, and this is pretty quiet,” said Robert Kennedy, 58, a US marketing executive who has been to six of the past seven World Cups. “In Brazil, we went to the Amazon, and in South Africa, we went to a game reserve,” he recalled. “It’s early days, but it’s just not the same.”
The atmosphere was one of the chief concerns ahead of the tournament, with many worried that high prices, limited public space and a lack of alcohol would also stymie the carnival feeling of a traditional World Cup.
The football vibe, surprisingly, can be found on Doha’s gleaming new Metro system, where fans from all 32 countries can rub shoulders and exchange stories as they shuttle to and from matches. Unlike all previous World Cups, every game at Qatar 2022 is taking place in the environs of one city — Doha — condensing a fan base that would typically be spread out over thousands of miles.
The last-minute decision by the organisers to ban beer sales in fan zones outside stadiums — announced 48 hours before Sunday’s opening game — has made already limited access to alcohol even more restricted. Fans can still buy beer at the fan festival, but only after 7pm, and at a few other locations in the city, such as five-star hotels.
There have been some high-profile early logistical problems. The digital ticketing system ran into trouble ahead of England’s opening fixture against Iran, resulting in thousands of ticket holders missing kick-off. The problems recurred later on Monday when Wales faced the US. Fifa said it was “working on solving the issue”, and advised fans to seek support outside match venues.
Some Wales fans also complained after security guards demanded they remove rainbow-coloured hats, a reminder of the sensitivity around LGBT rights in Qatar. The former Welsh international captain Laura McAllister said she had been told to take off her rainbow hat because it was a “banned symbol”. She told ITV News: “They were insistent that unless we took it off we weren’t going to be allowed into the stadium.”
Earlier that day, a host of European teams had been forced to ditch plans to wear rainbow-themed armbands during their opening fixtures following threats of punishment for players from Fifa.
Ashley Brown from the Football Supporters’ Association, which represents England and Wales fans at the tournament, said the opening few days had been “positive overall”. Most fans had “settled in pretty well”, with transport running smoothly and accommodation generally up to scratch.
Ticket problems were concerning, he said, but should be resolved once the technical issues had been worked through. The thing that may not improve is the general feel of the tournament.
“Fans are finding places to go and have a drink and enjoy watching the games”, Brown said. “But the atmosphere is lacking. We don’t have that street vibrancy you’d typically have at a tournament — I think that’s going to be missing here.”
Atmosphere inside stadiums has also been mixed. The opening game between hosts Qatar and Ecuador began with a packed crowd inside al-Bayt stadium, a new venue in the middle of the desert that looks like a tent and can hold about 60,000 spectators. But after half time, the crowd of mainly Qataris — men dressed in traditional white robes, women in black — began to disappear with the home side losing 2-0. With 10 minutes remaining, the stands were almost empty.
The official attendance at Senegal’s game against the Netherlands in al-Thumama stadium on Monday was just below 42,000 — close to the 44,400 capacity. But television viewers could see that rows and rows of seats were left empty.
“I’m not sure what I was expecting”, says Ryan Harry, a 26-year-old Wales fan. “The atmosphere has been good to be fair.”
He and three friends had flown in to Qatar to watch Wales’ first appearance at a World Cup since 1958, but would otherwise be following the football from the Rose & Thistle pub inside Doha’s Horizon Manor Hotel. “We’ve had no problems with alcohol — we’ve found plenty of places.”
Lewis Mitchell, 28, another Welsh supporter, said Qatar may be different to previous World Cups, but they were still having fun. “Instead of being in the town square, you’re in a pub on the second floor of a hotel,” he said.