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Playing cards, dominoes and suspicion: Seeking Qatar’s soccer tradition

It’s laborious to stray removed from the crushed observe in Doha as a result of usually talking, that observe has solely simply been constructed.

The town glimmers and gleams, all shiny new skyscrapers, five-star lodges and state-of-the-art soccer stadiums. All the things appears, feels and smells model new.

It additionally feels… what is the phrase? Soulless? Even with round a million folks reported to be descending on Qatar over the subsequent month, all of it feels terribly superficial. Even within the Souq Waqif, the place the pungent smells of spices and incense burners fill the air, the World Cup feels much less like the best present on earth than some sort of phantasm.

We imagined the environment would change as soon as the soccer began. And maybe it would. However strolling alongside the Corniche at 10pm final night time, witnessing a spectacular post-match firework show over West Bay, it’s truthful to say World Cup fever was struggling to take maintain.

It did not assist that Qatar had been soundly crushed by Ecuador within the event’s opening sport, and had been left grateful that their opponents slowed down after dashing right into a 2-0 lead that raised the prospect of humiliation for the hosts. However even when Qatar had pulled off a shock win, would the temper have been considerably completely different?

The Al Bayt Stadium had hundreds of empty seats in the direction of the tip of the second half (Picture: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Photos)

Qatar shouldn’t be a soccer nation. Sure, the sport is integral to the state’s imaginative and prescient of gaining associates and affect on the worldwide stage—and it has been profitable over the previous decade and extra, a tiny nation that has turn out to be such a significant participant in geopolitical and diplomatic phrases. However you can not construct a soccer tradition in a single day.

Stadiums sure, fan parks sure, lodges sure. However soccer tradition in a small nation whose inhabitants consists largely of migrant staff? Nope.

The intention final night time was to wander off from the vacationer traps and the fan parks in Doha and watch the sport amongst Qatari soccer followers, hoping to get a really feel for what the host nation actually makes of the World Cup — not simply the status but additionally the visiting followers, lots of them anticipating or demanding a extra Westernized expertise.

The problem is that the locals we had been searching for are few and much between. Of a inhabitants lately estimated at 2.94 million, solely round 330,000 (11.2 per cent) are Qatari. The biggest proportion is Indian (25 per cent) adopted by Bangladeshi and Nepalese (each 12.1 per cent). There are additionally massive teams of migrant staff from Egypt, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Qatari society has a number of distinct strands. On the backside, subjected to appalling working and residing situations, are the development staff, principally from Nepal. These within the service trade, whom you encounter in lodges, retailers and eating places, are nearly invariably males from India and Bangladesh. The Qataris seem to maintain themselves to themselves.

Qatar fan

A fan of Qatar in Doha on the night time of their opening match (Picture: Oliver Kay)

One native, not a Qatari, recommended the place to seek out them was at a fishermen’s cafe simply past the Corniche. It is one of many oldest institutions in Doha and it’s the place the fishermen historically go to chill out, play playing cards or dominoes, maybe smoke shisha after a day at sea. And they’re exhibiting the World Cup matches on a giant display. good.

Wandering in two hours earlier than kick-off, the cafe appears precisely as marketed. There are certainly males taking part in playing cards and dominoes on the tables, a few of them getting fairly labored up as they accomplish that. In a metropolis the place every thing seems shiny and new, every thing about this cafe, not least the decor, appears to evoke the previous Qatar, earlier than its inhabitants tripled over the area of 16 years because the tempo of change got here overwhelming.

There is only one drawback. The locals do not need to speak to a visiting reporter. They’re engrossed of their playing cards and their dominoes, however they will not speak when their video games are over both. They seem suspicious of Western journalists, which is probably not stunning.

However then a tv crew begins filming them going about their enterprise, apparently with their consent. Are these folks well-known? They do appear to exude an air of significance. Or maybe that’s merely what comes of such a stratified society.

Regularly the espresso fills up. However the brand new arrivals aren’t Qataris. They embody Sajir, who arrived from Kerala, India, two years in the past and runs a restaurant. He needs Argentina to win the World Cup, on account of his adoration of Lionel Messi. “However right now, I’ll help Qatar,” he says. “As a result of we’re residing right here. I need Qatar to do properly.”

Sajir expects the locals to maintain themselves to themselves. This tallies with the suggestion of a British expat in Doha, who says the extra conservative Qataris need little to do with the World Cup. One other suggests the locals will choose to collect collectively to look at the match at a majlis, which accurately means a sitting room , a spot for a communal gathering of associates, normally males.

On this event of big nationwide significance, he suggests, everybody’s majlis can be at Al Bayt Stadium. And when you think about how small the Qatari inhabitants is — and {that a} capability crowd of 67,372 is predicted — perhaps that does not depart many extra followers, informal or in any other case, to be again in Doha.

We come again to the query of simply how a lot the World Cup will excite locals. Attendances within the Qatar Stars League not often creep into 5 figures. When FIFA held the Membership World Cup in Doha in 2019, Al-Sadd, the Qatari champions, attracted a crowd of seven,047 within the first spherical and 4,878 within the quarter-final. A soccer hotbed it’s not.

When the opening ceremony began, these contained in the cafe had been briefly transfixed by the beIN Sports activities protection. However not for lengthy. It dragged, as opening ceremonies do. The dominoes and card video games continued.

Solely when the Emir of Qatar made his speech did a hush descend. However not fully. There was nonetheless a gaggle of males—not locals, it appeared—taking part in dominoes. The Qataris glared at them.

Lastly, the match began. Virtually as quickly because it did, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia put the ball within the Qatari web. There have been well mannered celebrations when a VAR let-off adopted, however the reprieve was momentary. Valencia transformed a penalty after 16 minutes and claimed a second aim with a towering header quarter-hour later. Qatar had been dealing with humiliation.

Late within the first half, one thing unusual occurred within the cafe. One of many teams of Qatari males began pushing and shoving one another. They needed to be separated and certainly one of them was led away.

Possibly the soccer actually was setting pulses racing. Or perhaps it was a disagreement over their card sport. It was tempting to imagine the latter.

There was one other temporary commotion when Almoez Ali was picked out for a free header in first-half stoppage time. Among the Qataris rose to their toes in celebration, however Ali missed the goal and half-time got here and went with out word, although it was notable that there was a surge in folks ordering shisha.

The second half was a drag. No person within the cafe appeared , least of all of the Qataris. It didn’t really feel like an enormous nationwide occasion. It barely felt like an occasion in any respect.

On the ultimate whistle, the gang dispersed. One of many Qataris, Mohammed Ali, was persuaded to share a number of temporary ideas. “In the present day was not good,” he stated. “It makes me offended.”

Mohammed Ali

Qatar fan Mohammed Ali on the night time of the host’s opening match (Picture: Oliver Kay)

He stated he most well-liked the Qatari crew of 1988 that beat the United Arab Emirates and Japan on the Asian Cup earlier than narrowly lacking out on the semi-finals. With the present crew, he stated, “too many gamers are from exterior, not from Qatar”.

Such are the lengths Qatar have gone to in an try to construct a crew worthy of the World Cup. And nonetheless, they regarded misplaced.

In fact, the entire event appears misplaced right here. Possibly that can change because it goes on and one thing resembling a World Cup vibe takes over however for now, it simply feels bizarre.

Fairly aside from all the numerous extra critical objections raised to holding the event in Qatar, a fundamental ingredient for a World Cup host is a critical ardour for soccer — or on the very least, as with america in 1994, the likelihood to construct one over time.

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Anybody who was in South Korea or Japan in 2002, Germany in 2006, South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014 or Russia in 2018 will inform you probably the most particular issues about these tournaments was the thrill felt by the locals.

This isn’t, as FIFA president Gianni Infantino would have it, a case of “spitting” on the Arab world and suggesting the World Cup ought to be off limits for big swathes of the Center East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are soccer mad. So are Iraq and Iran, for that matter. Qatar? Not a lot.

Certainly, FIFA’s personal bid analysis report again in 2009 made the identical level. The Qatari bid claimed that internet hosting a World Cup “would encourage your entire inhabitants of the Center East and introduce a brand new era of followers to soccer”, however the analysis report warned the state had “restricted potential when it comes to the variety of soccer followers” .

That was actually the impression gained on Sunday night. The post-match firework show was actually spectacular sufficient, however strolling alongside the Corniche afterwards, it was troublesome to withstand the sensation that there’s something lacking.

(Prime picture: Qatar followers in a restaurant after a VAR reprieve, credit score: Oliver Kay)


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