All the noises aside, Qatar has been great

Miss Croatia, Ivana Knol

Danny Jordaan, the current president of the South Africa Football Association, was a key member of South Africa’s successful 2010 Fifa World Cup bid.

He also served as the chief executive officer of the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Eleven years ago, he delivered a quote that has reverberated with every World Cup tournament that has taken place since.

“The criticism,” said Jordaan, “was positive. It helped that for a good number of visitors, the expectations of South Africa were so low that by the time the World Cup ended, the competition had been labelled a success in the minds of people who came expecting the worst. I can’t thank them [cynics] enough.”

That quote holds true for the subsequent tournaments of Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018 which were pilloried by sections of Western media before a ball was kicked, but by the time the actual football was over, both were unanimously passed as resounding successes.

If, for instance, the sceptics of those World Cups in South Africa, Brazil and Russia knew, then what we know now – that there would ever be a tournament without beer – they would possibly go back in time to retract their disparagement.

This World Cup has had its fair share of criticism from countries that have positioned themselves as the global champions of liberty, despite well-documented episodes that contradict their stance on Qatar. Ultimately, the world of football is in Qatar to enjoy what brought us here – football.

Those who travelled thousands of miles to promote their rights chose a wrong country; this is a football World Cup involving the best 32 football countries in the world to play, celebrate and enjoy the beautiful game.

And the climax to the group stages at the World Cup in Qatar was a thing of drama, glory, beauty, despair, agony, excitement and enjoyment rolled into one. I was at the Education City stadium to see South Korea’s Hwang Hee-Chan score a stoppage time winner against Portugal; a goal that took the Asian side through and denied Uruguay advancement to the round of 16.

The scenes in the Education City stadium were incomparable. The South Koreans, who had not won a game at the tournament and were staring at a likely elimination when Ricardo Horta gave Portugal the lead, had risen from the dead to resurrect a World Cup bid that looked improbable.

Football fans in Qatar

Seated right behind me in the media tribune were four South Korean female fans, wrapped in their national colours, who screamed so loud in a fit of delirium. That moment right there, was precisely why some of us pulled all stops to travel to Qatar.

It was what the World Cup is truly about: emotions, drama, surprises, adrenaline rushes and tension. A day before, Japan had pulled off a minor miracle when they topped a group that featured 2010 winners Spain and 2014 champions Germany. Before the draw was made, the odds of Japan finishing top of a World Cup group that also had Spain and Germany must have been around 1-1000.

It was inconceivable. But that is what they did, beating the two European powerhouses. That is football as we have come to know it; a game that throws the most improbable results imaginable. We saw Tunisia beat World Cup holders France, and Cameroon making history by becoming the first African country to defeat Brazil at a Fifa World Cup.

Last Saturday’s first and second knock-out games of Netherlands-USA and Argentina-Australia were toe-to-toe contests that went the full length with the Dutch and the South Americans prevailing in hard-fought victories, both of which were thrillers.

On the field of play, Qatar 2022 has more than delivered. The early exit of Belgium, the world’s second-ranked football nation, was part of the drama in Doha that the 92-year-old competition has become famed for. The uniqueness of the Qatar experience has also made this one a stand-out tournament. Never has the global showpiece been staged in what is for all intents and purposes one city.

Considering that 80 per cent of the population of Qatar lives in Doha, this has been a World Cup hosted in the capital. With all stadiums built within an hour’s reach of the other, fans and journalists have managed to watch two or more games per day.

In Russia, for instance, the distances between Moscow and St Petersburg (710km) or Kazan and Sochi (2001km) made it impossible for fans to catch two games in one day. In Doha, grounds such as Lusail, Al Janoub, Al Thumama, Stadium 974, King Khalifa, Education City and Ahmed Bin Ali are close to one another.

The well-coordinated stadium shuttles and metro system have both enabled fans to get to other grounds in time for different games. Whatever your view of Qatar is, that novelty will not be matched.

The next 48-team World Cup in 2026 will be staged in Mexico, USA and Canada and it will undoubtedly be expensive for fans interested in watching as many games as they can. You can be sure that four years from now fans will look back at the Qatar experience with nostalgia, given how convenient the switch to stadiums has been.

It is unlikely that this experience will be emulated in the foreseeable future of the World Cup. For the wealthy ones, there has been the viewing experience of the Fifa World Cup on yachts.

Docked on the coastline, fans have had the option of luxurious accommodation on chartered yachts with a package that includes on-board entertainment, the finest cuisines and drinks (including alcohol) throughout the competition. Again, this treat is best enjoyed in Qatar given the country’s ingenious seashore and desert climes.

A lot of noise has been made about alcohol but some facts have inevitably been lost in translation. There is alcohol being sold in the Fifa Fan Fests and nightclubs. In fact, last week, we were given a tour by a Ugandan expat – he has lived in Doha for five years – who took us to places that sell all types of beer including Heineken, Stella Artois, Carlsberg, and Budweiser the official World Cup beer.

Admittedly, the pricing is a bit prohibitive, a move aimed at disinteresting tourists in enjoying a pastime that contravenes the country’s norms. Where you will not find alcohol is in the stadiums where it was banned two days to kick-off.

The upside to this is that there have been no acts of hooliganism fueled by alcohol. The safety and security officials at the tournament have had a relatively easy job in crowd control.

Beer at night

The reality is that even the most addicted alcoholic would not judge the quality and glamour of the 2022 Fifa World Cup on the inability to consume his or her favourite beverage. Henry Winter, the chief football writer for The Times of England, told me this was the most exhilarating finish he can recall of group stage matches.

“This is simply unique. I can’t put it in any better way,” he observed. “Games have been decided in the final minutes with so many twists and turns and that is what really makes the game so enthralling.”

As visitors, we have had to fit into Qatar and its traditions and norms. It was never going to be Qatar to fit into the lifestyles and behaviours of its visitors. Qatar is a sovereign country with its laws and authorities and they made a decision, which ought to be respected.

Drive through Doha and you will be met by huge digital images extolled on the city’s high scrapers in West Bay of the tournament superstars like Neymar, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Made and Karim Benzema. Day or night in Doha, you can feel and touch the phenomenon called the Fifa World Cup.

The Fifa Fan Fests are lit in every sense of the word. They are free for the non-ticket-holding fans to go and enjoy the tournament in a stadium-like atmosphere and there is World Cup paraphernalia being sold inside that includes customised caps, flags, jerseys, keyholders and pens for all participating countries.

Qatar 2022 has confounded critics. The first two weeks have been great; the remaining fortnight promises to be greater.

Source: The Observer

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