World Cup fever finally grips Qatar as fans descend on Doha ahead of big kick-off

Twelve years on from being announced as hosts, Qatar is ready to host the largest World Cup in history

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After the angst and the acrimony, Doha woke on Sunday to the opening day of a Fifa World Cup on home soil.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the president of football's world governing body, Gianni Infantino, gave a truly extraordinary address, where he rounded on critics, both of his organisation and the host nation.

Later that day, Doha felt, finally, like it served as stage to the world’s most high-profile single-sports event. It has been a slow burn, less boisterous than Brazil in 2014 on that final stretch of preparation, less riotous that Russia – even if the most recent host took a while to warm up, too.

Not long after 7pm on Saturday, a full day out from The Big Kick-Off between home hope Qatar and South America’s Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium, fireworks and drones lit up the sky above the just-opened Fifa Fan Festival. “Welcome to Qatar” read the message.

Organisers crave that the football, comprising 64 matches across 29 days, will provide welcome respite from the controversy and the critics, the Middle East’s first World Cup and the most compact in competition history sure to offer plentiful highlights and hot debate on the pitch, even if Infantino’s insistence that it will be the “best in history” – wasn’t that uttered four years ago, also? – jarred somewhat.

For there have been issues, serious and sustained, from the award of the event to Qatar 12 years ago all the way through the Fifa president’s offensive on Saturday.

Qatar has had more than a decade and spent, reportedly, $200 billion in preparation. In 2018, Russia was estimated to have parted with $11bn to put on the whole jamboree. For that, the small, energy-rich Gulf state really should be ready.

A day out, it appeared to be getting there. As mentioned, the Fifa Fan Festival was at last awash with people, and by 8pm the endless line of volunteers and security guards on the trek through the landscaped Al Bidda Park declared through megaphones that it could not take anybody more. Full – its official capacity sits at 40,000 – thousands of fans were ushered towards other activation sites along the Corniche.

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This World Cup certainly strikes a more family-friendly tone than Brazil or Russia. Perhaps that’s to do with the scarcity of alcohol. Maybe it’s that, until now, the majority of those making the most of the Fifa circus in town are those that reside in that town all year round.

Hefty groups of visiting fans are seemingly yet to flood Doha, although you are never far from an Argentina replica shirt, hugely popular, apparently, among the city’s many expatriates from the Middle East and Asia. Brazil, still some way back, sit second.

There are a few street hawkers, some flogging giant Portugal flags, some curly wigs in the host country’s maroon and white, some airhorns and some those omnipresent Argentina jerseys.

It would not surprise if they were all sourced at Souq Waqif. The traditional market, not far from the Corniche and the plush Downtown Doha where certain roads have been closed to cope with the arrival of an extra 1.2 million visitors over the next month, was alive with noise and national pride on Saturday night.

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Tunisians sang songs, chanted names and waved giant flags; Moroccans took residence outside the huge television studios that back onto the souq and witnessed the reverie through giant, hopefully soundproof, floor-to-ceiling windows. Saudi Arabians posed for pictures in their kanduras with those bedecked in Qatar’s colours. Remember, this represents the first World Cup held in the Arab world.

Elsewhere, a smattering of Argentines happily gave strangers a go on banging their blue and white drum; a similarly sized collection of Brazilians with plastic World Cup trophies and yellow and green face paint filed through the souq’s narrow alleyways, drawing smiles and iPhones from shop workers. Just out of view, a young Mexican had a ride on a camel in the temporary sand pit.

Still, it will be intriguing to see if Doha is dominated by the World Cup like hosts before them. Yes, hoardings and signage scream “Fifa World Cup”, “Qatar 2022”, and “Now Is All” – the official tournament slogan. Gleaming skyscrapers in the city centre and West Bay area display in neon the national flags of participating countries, or their facades are covered by colossal images of Manuel Neuer, Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Luka Modric, Lionel Messi and others.

People drink coffee at the Souq Waqif marketplace in Doha ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. AFP

It remains to be seen if the smallest country to stage a World Cup can cope with the influx – an estimated 60,000 fans from Mexico are anticipated, 40,000 from Argentina, not to mention many more from neighbouring Saudi.

During the weekend, the impressive metro’s carriages – the underground transport system’s construction was expedited because of the World Cup – were congested. From Tuesday, beginning with Argentina against Saudi at the 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium, there will be four matches a day through until December 2.

On Sunday, though, there’s only one show in town. The buzz has been building, bunting frames the streets. Qataris are genuinely excited for the occasion. Twelve years in the making, they stage their first World Cup match.

Updated: November 20, 2022, 9:04 AM