No more sleeps. And not an overwhelming sense of a country waking up with World Cup fever. The assignment is to reflect what it is like in Doha as Qatar opens the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East with a game against Ecuador. On a two-hour walk around the city before ending up at Souq Waqif, a traditional magnet for locals and tourists, the only signs of World Cup life are an organised gathering for Qataris (100 maximum) outside Millennium Plaza, a few cars driving past waving both Qatar and Palestine flags, and two men sat outside a refrigerator repair shop with a TV propped up on a chair. Souq Waqif is livelier, although more people are gathered around a Korean technology stand than looking for the game. There is dangerous overcrowding at the Fan Festival, however, where too many people descend on the 40,000-capacity venue and are kept in a holding area for almost an hour before being herded away. An inevitable consequence, you might say, of hosting a World Cup in and around one city that offers few options for football fans.
A day at the main media centre, the football journalist’s equivalent of The Terminal starring Tom Hanks. You might never leave. And that might be the point. It has a hair and beauty salon, a gym, a dry cleaners, a bar, restaurants, a vast working area, two virtual stadium “experiences” (watching matches at the cinema, basically), two press conference rooms and a bus terminus from where you can travel to all the games. The France head coach, Didier Deschamps, is besieged with requests for selfies from local journalists after previewing the world champions’ opener against Australia. There is standing room only for Argentina’s press conference due to the appearance of Lionel Messi and there is a rush for the exits when he finishes, leaving Saudi Arabia head coach, Hervé Renard, to address an almost deserted auditorium. The world’s media will be hanging on his every word inside 24 hours.
Jackpot. Covering Messi at his last World Cup was already special but Argentina v Saudi Arabia exceeds all expectations. On the metro up to Lusail Stadium it feels like a World Cup is finally under way with carriages crammed with Argentina and Saudi supporters in full voice. The atmosphere inside the World Cup final venue is exceptional and builds as Saudi Arabia produce one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history. An unforgettable moment. Then it’s off to the Fan Festival to watch France v Australia. A 500ml can of Budweiser – the only alcohol available – costs 50 Qatari riyal, roughly £11.50.
Apartment – metro – media centre – bus – stadium – metro – apartment. This, more or less, is the daily work routine. Monotonous, yes, but you’re not missing out on much in Qatar. It’s the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium tonight for Canada’s first World Cup appearance in 36 years. They should beat Belgium; they lose, on account of never scoring at a World Cup. It is now four World Cup games without a goal for Canada. A record. The 10pm kick-off means getting back to the apartment at 3.15am, once everything is filed and the last metro is caught. It could be worse: the journalist next to me in the stadium opened a bottle of Coca-Cola before kick-off that exploded everywhere but mainly down into his laptop. It died.
While taking in the sights on a walk along the Corniche, Doha’s seven-kilometre promenade, word comes through of a late ticket for Brazil v Serbia at Lusail Stadium. We were given a Qatar-controlled “look at the safe and happy migrant labourers tour” of the World Cup final venue under construction three years ago while here with Liverpool for the Club World Cup. It was a stadium in a desert. Now it is a stadium next to a growing city of glittering towers, architecturally stunning hotels, apartment blocks, boulevards and Place Vendôme mall, a French-Vegas style construction covering 1,150,000 square metres. It’s taken longer for Liverpool city council to reconfigure Lime Street, as Richarlison can testify. Now he’s flinging himself into World Cup superstardom.
The power of the World Cup strikes like a bolt. The sound of the Iran national anthem being booed and whistled by Iranians before kick-off against Wales and the sight of Iranian women and men left distraught afterwards is incredibly moving. It serves as another rebuke to the pathetic appeal by Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, for everyone to “stick to the football”. Security guards following orders confiscate an Iran fan’s football shirt that has “Mahsa Amini 22” printed on the back, the name and age of the woman whose death in police custody sparked the ongoing protests in the country. Shame on Fifa. There are reports of fans being arrested for carrying flags opposed to the Islamic republic and for banners with the protest slogan ‘Women, life, freedom’. Shame on Qatar. Iran players somehow block out the powerful distractions to produce an emotion-charged victory.
Apartment – metro – media centre – bus – stadium – metro – apartment.