DOHA: In four years’ time, Qatar’s Khalifa International Stadium will host a World Cup quarter-final, but on Tuesday it had to make do with a big screen. Some 4,500 people packed out the stadium’s fan zone as it showed France beating Belgium in the semi-final in Russia, knowing that the clock is ticking for Qatar’s World Cup in 2022.
Atef, a 30-year-old local who is supporting Belgium, says he has enjoyed the tournament. “It’s competitive, it makes it more interesting, to see someone new in the World Cup,” he says.
But he admits the unpredicted success of Russia has put more pressure on Qatar to follow-up with a tournament equally as good. “To be honest, yes, there is much pressure. This will be the first World Cup in the Middle East,” says Atef.
“It’s not only big for Qatar, it’s big for the region.” The game has attracted people from all over Doha, mostly men, but there are plenty of families and women in attendance. Fans drawn from Qatar, Kenya, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan are glued to the screen, screaming and jumping at several near misses.
Popcorn and soft drink sellers move among the crowd and people are still pouring in some 30 minutes after kick-off. The stadium is air-conditioned and needs to be as the humidity of a Doha summer makes it feel like the temperature is above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), past nine o’ clock in the evening.
It is clear that Belgium are the fans’ favourites in the Khalifa stadium-though some supporters are in French replica shirts-but the game also shows the global appeal of the World Cup. One Indian fan, Pooja, admits she does not really like football, but takes an interest in the game every four years when the World Cup comes around. Nearby, Mohamed, a Qatari teacher is there to watch the match with his family, but is also thinking four years’ ahead. “I think we can make it better than Russia, because there have been more sports in Doha beforehand,” he says.
Qatar’s World Cup bid has been hit by several controversies over allegations of corruption, human rights’ abuse and the vexed issue of alcohol for fans when some 1.5 million supporters are expected to descend on Doha in 2022.
Qatar, a conservative Muslim country, is not a dry state, but it has strict rules on the purchase of alcohol. Booze will be sold at the tournament, but the plan so far is for it to be restricted to certain zones. Mohamed though is not bothered. “There’s no problem with that, if you want to drink, drink,” he says. But won’t locals be offended? “No, I don’t believe that,” adds Mohamed.
‘I AM SO EXCITED’
Teenager Jassim from Bangladesh, is dressed in a Qatari robe and says he cannot wait to watch games live in four years’ time. “This makes me so excited, I will go to games in 2022,” says the 15-year-old. High in the seats provided for fans sits Alex, 29, a security guard from Kenya, was cheering Belgium because a former Belgian national team player, Divock Origi, has Kenyan roots.
But his mind is as much on 2022 as the semi-final. He has been in the Gulf for two years and one of the reasons he come to Qatar is the World Cup. “It will be a privilege for me to see the World Cup,” he says excitedly. “If my visa expires, I will have to find a way to extend it so I am here for 2022.” — AFP