It was day three of the World Cup in Qatar before the first real topic of conversation emerged – at least as far as football is concerned. Argentina, the tournament’s second favorites, suffered a humiliating loss to Saudi Arabia, one of the lowest-ranked sides.
“We expected to lose three or four to zero,” said Thamer Jamal, 35, a Saudi chemist who drove across the border with his brother to watch the game in Doha. “These last few minutes” – with the Saudis precariously leading 2-1 – “I’ve never been so stressed in my life.”
Unable to secure tickets for Tuesday’s game, the pair made their way to the official Fifa fan festival, held on an open stretch of tarmac between Doha’s seafront promenade and the West Bay skyscrapers. A few thousand spectators had gathered for the lunchtime opener – including Asian migrant workers wearing blue and white Argentinian jerseys emblazoned with the name of star player Lionel Messi. You would leave disappointed.
The festival aims to be a focal point for those visiting Qatar but not attending matches – and an opportunity to address the pre-tournament complaint that this World Cup, being held in a country with no footballing tradition, would lack atmosphere.
The open venue, which seats 40,000 people, mixes game demonstrations with musical performances and food stands. During the opening game, the festival drew such a crowd that riot police were deployed to maintain control.
But not everyone has been impressed with what Qatar has to offer visitors. “I’ve been to a lot of fan fests and it’s pretty quiet here,” said Robert Kennedy, 58, a US marketing executive who has attended six of the last seven World Cups. “In Brazil we went to the Amazon and in South Africa to a game reserve,” he recalls. “It’s still early, but it’s just not the same.”
Atmosphere was a major concern leading up to the tournament, as many feared high prizes, limited public space and a lack of alcohol would also spoil the carnival feel of a traditional World Cup.
Surprisingly, the football vibe can be found in Doha’s shiny new subway system, where fans from all 32 countries can rub shoulders and swap stories as they commute to and from matches. Unlike all previous World Cups, every game in Qatar 2022 will take place around a single city – Doha – consolidating a fan base that typically stretches thousands of miles.
Organizers’ last-minute decision to ban beer sales in fan zones outside stadiums – announced 48 hours before Sunday’s opening game – has further curtailed already limited access to alcohol. Fans can still buy beer at Fanfest, but only after 7 p.m., and at a few other locations around the city, such as five-star hotels.
There were some high-profile early logistical issues. The digital ticketing system ran into trouble ahead of England’s opening game against Iran, causing thousands of ticket holders to miss kick-off. The problems surfaced again later on Monday when Wales took on the USA. Fifa said they were “working to resolve the issue” and advised fans to seek support outside of the venues.
Some Welsh fans also complained after security forces demanded rainbow-colored hats be removed, a reminder of LGBT rights sensitivities in Qatar. Former Wales international Laura McAllister said she was told to take off her rainbow hat because it was a “prohibited symbol”. she said ITV News: “They insisted that we are not allowed to enter the stadium unless we take it off.”
Earlier in the day, scores of European teams were forced to abandon plans to wear rainbow-themed armbands during their opening matches following threats of punishment against FIFA players.
Ashley Brown of the Football Supporters’ Association, which represents England and Wales fans at the tournament, said the opening days had been “overall positive”. Most fans had “settled in fairly well”, transport was smooth and the accommodations were generally fine.
Ticket issues are a concern, he said, but should be resolved once technical issues are worked through. What may not improve is the overall feel of the tournament.
“Fans are finding places to have a drink and watch the games,” Brown said. “But the atmosphere is missing. We don’t have that street vibe that you usually have in a tournament – I think that’s going to be missing here.”
The atmosphere in the stadiums was also mixed. The opening game between hosts Qatar and Ecuador began with a packed crowd at Al Bayt Stadium, a new venue in the middle of the desert that looks like a tent and can seat around 60,000 spectators. But after half-time, the mostly Qatari crowd – men in traditional white robes, women in black – disappeared and the home side lost 2-0. Ten minutes before the end, the stands were almost empty.
The official attendance for Senegal’s game against the Netherlands at al-Thumama Stadium on Monday was just under 42,000 – close to the 44,400 capacity. But TV viewers could see that rows and rows of seats remained empty.
“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” says Ryan Harry, a 26-year-old Wales fan. “The atmosphere was good, to be fair.”
He and three friends had flown to Qatar to watch Wales’ first appearance at a World Cup since 1958 but would otherwise be watching the football from the Rose & Thistle pub at Doha’s Horizon Manor Hotel. “We didn’t have any problems with alcohol – we found a lot of places.”
Lewis Mitchell, 28, another Welsh supporter, said Qatar might be different to previous World Cups but they still had fun. “Instead of being in the town square, you’re in a pub on the second floor of a hotel,” he said.