Razzmatazz of World Cup missing but Asian Cup a chance for Qatar to make progress on pitch

It will be difficult to match the fervour of 2022 but continental tournament can be a catalyst for long-term growth of sport in the country

Qatar's Akram Afif celebrates after scoring the opening goal of the Asian Cup against Lebanon at the Lusail Stadium on Friday, January 12, 2024. AP
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The 974 Stadium looms large on the Express Road that connects the Hamad International Airport to Downtown Doha.

The arena, which gets its name from the almost 1,000 shipping containers that formed its structure, was built for the 2022 World Cup. It was to be dismantled two Decembers ago, immediately after Lionel Messi and Argentina reigned supreme in Qatar, and donated to countries deemed to need it most.

As one of the first landmarks to come into view for those who touch down in Doha and head for the city’s heartland, it feels now of another era, the top tiers gone to leave a barren ring around its upper half.

Yet signposts on the highway still demarcate designated lanes into the stadium for media and TV; the overpass bridge that straddles the multi-laned road is emblazoned with Qatar 2022 insignia. “Welcome Amazing”, the tournament tagline, peers down, in large script, from the flyover.

Not much more than a year on from Qatar’s major moment, the Gulf state has welcomed another marquee international tournament this month and midway into the next. The 2023 Asian Cup, relocated from China and thus rescheduled in Qatar, got under way on Friday night to the north of Doha, where the hosts fared mightily better than they did upon the grand opening to the Arab world’s first World Cup, 14 months ago.

At the same Lusail Stadium that hoisted Messi, finally, among the immortals, Qatar overcame Lebanon with minimal fuss, winning 3-0. The defending champions, Asian Cup winners four years previously in the UAE, gave the majority of the near 82,500 crowd what they wanted; Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, that transcendent tandem from 2019, recaptured form of old to rekindle possibilities of repeat success for their country.

Coming into the tournament, such a feat felt a long way away. To be fair, and irrespective of their opening Group A victory, it still does. Qatar have endured a fraught year since the world converged on its shores. Wounded by their group exit – their trio of defeats ranks as the worst display by a host nation – they replaced long-time manager Felix Sanchez with the combustible Carlos Queiroz.

The Portuguese did not even make it to the Asian Cup; he parted company with the Qatar Football Association last month, leaving the rather more discreet “Tintin” Marquez Lopez to step into the breach at the 11th hour.

To put it lightly, preparations for the defence of their continental crown have been far from ideal. It is not what the country, eager to better showcase it footballing talent than it did at the World Cup, would have desired.

The national team’s malaise had led, understandably, to some indifference. Apathy may be too strong a sentiment, but it could explain why, in the build-up to its latest staging of a premier football event, Doha did not seem to have fully embraced it.

For sure, nothing can replicate the razzmatazz of a World Cup, where it felt as if half the planet’s population had descended on the desert.

But, whereas Qatar 2022 enveloped Doha, Asian Cup 2023 has not quite made its mark. Rather, the most prominent hoardings as you enter the city advertise Expo 2023, which runs until the end of March, when “The World Meets Again in Doha”. It is situated at Al Bidda Park, home during the World Cup to a sprawling Fifa Fan Festival.

At Souq Waqif, the meeting point for the masses throughout the last global finals, few street hawkers sold Asian Cup merchandise. As was the case back in late 2022, broadcasters beIn Sports had reporters and camera crew stationed in the marketplace, but instead of interviewing fans in the canary yellow of Brazil or the deep red of Spain, or the ubiquitous blue and white stripes of Argentina, they turned the mic to a young girl in Al Hilal’s royal blue.

Rather than replica jerseys of France, Germany or England hanging in shop windows, there was Al Nassr, made famous since the World Cup by Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar’s Hilal, or Kylian Mbappe’s Paris Saint-Germain.

The World Cup has gone; of course it has. It pitches at another plot every four years, consumes whatever country - or, increasingly, countries - that have been allocated, then mows on, swelling not only in participants, but apparently in import, too.

But the Asian Cup represents an opportunity for Qatar to move on also. There should be an acknowledgment of their place in history, of the successful hosting of arguably sport’s greatest spectacle. However, the continent’s showpiece competition allows the opportunity to confirm a legacy from 2022, that the World Cup did indeed deepen Qatar’s love for the game.

On Friday, it seized the chance to shine. While the metro’s red line to Lusail was hardly heaving in the same way it did for the World Cup – how could it? – it was filled with families decked out in Qatar colours, the excitement at getting to witness another spectacular opening ceremony palpable, together with their national team at the top end of competition.

Huge roars greeted almost everything from the fireworks and festivities to the conclusion of the Qatar national anthem, to any impactful incident on the pitch. A determined drummer kept the mood upbeat; the crowd responding by clapping in unison or chorusing their team’s name.

The stadium, though, began to empty surprisingly early and with Qatar 2-0 up and patently cruising, the home fans perhaps realising the points were secure, or desperate to beat the traffic back into Doha. Yet the turnout was impressive.

Granted, whether such conviction can be maintained throughout the next four weeks and the 50 matches still to unfurl remains to be seen – organisers said earlier this week that 900,000 tickets had already been sold – but Qatar could be proud of its premiere night of the 2023 Asian Cup.

They were right to make the most of it. Conceivably, this marks the last major football tournament to be held in the country for the foreseeable future. The spotlight, not only of Asian football but perhaps the global game, shifts soon to Saudi Arabia – the kingdom will house the 2027 Asian Cup - leaving its Gulf neighbour to maybe reset after the World Cup and away from the glare, and rally towards consistent progress on the pitch.

Updated: January 13, 2024, 9:39 AM