Exhausting and exhilarating: Passion of fans made my first World Cup unforgettable

The National's Sarah Forster tells how Doha was brought to life by supporters from across the globe

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An unprecedented winter World Cup gracing the Middle East for the first time was always going to be a leap into uncharted territory.

Well before a football was even kicked in Doha, there were concerns that this might not even feel like a World Cup at all.

Of course there would be state-of-the-art stadiums, a plethora of superstar players and no shortage of on-pitch drama.

But what about the fans? Would the intrepid travellers who provide the vibrant colour and atmosphere of any international tournament turn up in large numbers and make this a sporting spectacle to remember?

My experience on the ground was that fans were genuinely having a good time and excited to be at a tournament brought to a new part of the world.

Politics aside, whenever I got chatting to anyone in a team shirt, the overall sentiment was the same.

“Yeah it’s all right, actually, had no problems so far.”

Perhaps people were expecting the police presence to be much higher than it was, providing an air of tension and intimidation, but there really was nothing like that.

Of course there was security going into stadiums and fan zones, and maybe it could have been handled a little smoother, but I couldn’t see it being a flawless system in many countries.

While sitting in the fan village I got talking to a few people staying in the portacabins, and again it was the organisation that caused some frustration, not the local laws or customs.

Sure, many will have been unhappy with the dry nature of the camp, but it was no great surprise.

This may be a first World Cup in the Middle East, but fans were not too fussed about the geography. They were here for the football.

Fans bring Doha to life

Showpiece events such as the World Cup or the Olympics see people of all backgrounds and nationalities brought together by a love of sport.

It was no different in Qatar — and there was no shortage of quirky characters on display.

Outside Lusail Stadium, one woman from Argentina, draped in her national flag and clutching a replica trophy, told me how she had travelled alone to the tournament, and that her family had been saving up for five years to allow her to make the trip.

At a fan village, a red-haired man in a Boston cap named Pablo, who was born in Mexico and spoke fluent Spanish, told me about how he couldn’t afford to save much but what he did had gone towards funding this trip.

On the subject of Spanish speakers, there were thousands of them, many without good English. If I were to have personally given organisers any advice, it would have been to cater to the fans of six teams all of which speak Spanish as a first language. It was a comment made to me by more than one South American fan in the few days I was there.

Elsewhere on a bus some Welsh fans from Wrexham shrugged their shoulders when asked if they’d had any problems so far, and a couple of Canadians waiting outside a fan festival suggested more water vendors would probably have been a good idea.

But the odd moan and groan was not a sign of deeper disgruntlement.

On song on the metro

The activity on the metro at night was something Doha will likely never see again. Fans banging drums and chanting national songs on the trains, audible from the platform for a few seconds when the doors opened, seemed to lift the spirits of everyone.

Only on that first sleepy Sunday when I boarded a train with rowdy Ecuadorians did an attendant ask if I wanted to move to another carriage. From the second day onwards it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Even the men working on the platform managing crowd flow were amazed at what they were seeing. One decked out in a high-vis vest told me the scenes were “incredible” as he directed passengers towards the right exit.

Outside shopping malls and on streets, international fans came together to sing and dance.

My favourite moment was a casual passing fist bump between a Japan and a Germany fan, both decked out in team colours, in a busy nearby mall after Japan's shock win. This was the beautiful game shown in its best light.

A low point was definitely sitting on the metro during a game thanks to the lack of seating outside the stadium or in the metro station.

The whole experience was infectious and, although I had never been to a World Cup before, I enjoyed every exhausting moment of my visit.

Updated: November 30, 2022, 3:00 AM