France 98 to Qatar 2022: My fourth World Cup was a step into the unknown

The National's Nick Webster, a seasoned tournament traveller, found this year's festival of football a unique experience

Nick Webster and Sarah Forster host a live broadcast in Doha, Qatar. Andy Scott / The National
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Moments after arriving at Abu Dhabi airport to board a flight to Doha, it was clear the Qatar World Cup was going to be a tournament like no other.

With the airport terminal a melting pot of South American, Japanese, Australian, Mexican and British fans ― many basing themselves in the UAE and flying in for games ― strict formalities and restrictions usually associated with Middle Eastern airports were brushed aside.

Camera phones captured the moment as national anthems rang out and supporters in all the colours of the rainbow climbed the stairway and on to flight EY398 to Doha.

For a World Cup, anything goes, well almost.

The changing face of football

It was a taste of what was to come over the next five days in what would be my fourth World Cup, and first outside Europe.

Much has changed since France 98, when I drove from England to Lens with friends to watch the hosts play Paraguay in the first knock-out match to feature the now forgotten Golden Goal format.

We picked up tickets at face value outside the ground an hour before kick-off and, unbelievably, a friendly Frenchman offered more tickets for England’s upcoming match with Argentina in Marseille just days later for a paltry €40 ($42).

As a comparison, tickets for England v Senegal at the Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday night are commanding €5,000 on the resale market.

Admission prices have steadily increased ever since that dazzling World Cup in France.

Fans pay steep prices

In Germany 2006, touts refused to budge on a €300 fee for Australia against Italy in Kaiserslautern, even 10 minutes after kick-off.

And for the 2018 tournament in Russia, I managed to pick up the cheapest official Fifa tickets to watch Morocco take on Iran in St Petersburg for about €120.

It was one of the tournament’s earlier games and after a rowdy six-hour flight from Dubai packed with partying Iranians, landing in Russia was surreal.

The hosts had thumped Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their opening match the night before, with the celebration still in full swing at 7am.

Landing in Doha on November 20, 2022 on the tournament’s opening day was a different world.

There were plenty of fans mingling at airport arrivals, but they soon dispersed into waiting taxis and buses.

Elsewhere, the city was bracing itself in anticipation of what was to come.

France hero Zinedine Zidane is congratulated teammate Youri Djorkaeff, right, and Marcel Desailly after scoring against Brazil in the 1998 Wolrd Cup final. Photo: PA

Qatar’s hosting of such a huge event has been a journey into the unknown for this tiny desert peninsula.

Never before had the country received such an influx of visitors, with an expected 1.2 million expected through the doors. Most had saved up for years to be part of Qatar’s festival of football.

With no previous form managing an event of this size, few expected this tournament to be delivered without a hitch.

Admittedly, some hotels were yet to be finished and shortly after arriving at our accommodation, builders were packing away tools as we checked in. It all seemed a bit rushed.

But bar the odd ticket glitch and accommodation headache for a minority, it has been a smooth journey for most - unlike on the pitch where giants of the game Argentina, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium have all been toppled by supposedly lesser opposition.

Doha delivers memorable event

Whisper it, but many are viewing this World Cup as a success, so far.

Champions bar in the Marriott Hotel in West Bay was a hotbed of post-match analysis for supporters.

When Japanese fans arrived shortly after swiping aside Germany in their group match, the handful of supporters were treated like heroes, as if they had just come off the pitch themselves.

At previous tournaments thousands of fans based themselves in cities where their team would play to soak up pre-match atmosphere.

To have all 64 matches unfold in a single city created a different dynamic altogether in Doha.

Qatar’s much vaunted Metro system that linked all eight stadiums became an artery for fans, delivering the lifeblood of this World Cup.

Arab world united by sport

That was never more apparent than during Saudi Arabia's game with Argentina. As supporters of all nations criss-crossed Doha on the Metro, news filtered through of a major breaking upset.

As Mexican and Tunisian fans headed for fan zones to watch their teams, they visibly grew in stature as they dreamed of similar giant-killing opportunities in the days ahead.

Although Morocco were the only Arab nation to escape their group, the way regional nations came together to celebrate each others success on the streets of Souq Waqif will live long in the memory.

Huge crowds waving flags from all nations marched through the souq, with the sound of horns, drums and singing filling the air.

With alcohol in short supply and a largely Muslim fan base for the celebrating teams, there was little chance of the party spilling over into the violence often seen at other World Cups.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 7:32 AM