Saturday is usually the quietest day in Doha, the second day of the weekend when they wake up late and drown the day brushing off the accumulated fatigue of Friday shopping and the weekday chores. But this Saturday, like the last four Saturdays, was busier than usual. The vast sidewalks and tidy streets of Doha are overflowing with a cross-section of the world, some still mourning the defeat of their ousted teams, some waiting breathlessly for the Sunday final between France, the defending champions, and Argentina.
Wherever you cast your eyes, whoever you listen to or converse with, the final is all that you hear, see and feel, as though you’re living inside a giant shell of football. Even in the menu of some hotels, like ‘football kuboos’ and ‘red card beetroot juice’. The Al Wakra-Lusail QNB metro train runs packed with fans and visitors travelling to Lusail to see the shrine for the Sunday pilgrimage, to marvel at the architectural wonder, or unpack the selfie stick to capture the crescent-shaped building formed of two giant curved arms reaching skywards beside the stadium.
From Al Wakra in the south to Al Khor in the north, from upscale Corniche to downtown Asian City, the city is in the clutches of football fever that will hit a crescendo on Sunday. Any time of the day, Corniche, the seaside promenade, is packed with football tourists soaking in the sun and water, taking selfies and hitting local shacks for Arabian cuisine. The queues to enter fan-parks are still long, as they await one more day of high-quality football. Miniature flags of the 32 participating countries still flutter from the roofs of houses and shops. The city is still in a football-intoxicated state, but without emotional excesses.
There have been no brawls, few fights between fans, no fear of getting mugged in the night or burglars breaking into hotels. “The safest World Cup I have ever been to,” says Brit Nick Thomas, who has been to every World Cup since 2006. “I can walk anywhere, any time of the night. I can get a cab at 3 am. What more do you want,” he asks.
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Long gone are the fears and doubts, skepticism of the tournament rolling out in the backdrop of rigid laws and a highly conservative local population, of a tournament being monitored by a thousand camera eyes enabled with artificial intelligence. “Though England lost in the quarterfinals, this is one of the greatest World Cups I have been to,” he says.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has the same view, calling it “the best World Cup ever”. He elaborated: There’s unanimous praise from the FIFA council for this World Cup and for the unique, cohesive power it has shown. As many as 3.27 million spectators attended the first 62 games, compared to 3.03 (million) for all games in 2018. The average attendance was 52,760, while 1.7 million attended the fan fest, 80,000 on average. And in this span, according to a Qatar Police bulletin, zero crime was registered.
The success has wider meanings and ramifications. Qatar 2022 could open the doors of sporting events of similar magnitude in this region. The country itself would bid for the Olympics in 2036. Neighbour Saudi Arabia is vying for the 2030 episode of the World Cup. If Qatar and Saudi Arabia have thrown their hats in the ring, so could the United Arab Emirates in the future. In fact, UAE was the first Middle East country that explored the possibility of hosting a sporting event, even though it has barely a resonance in the local culture. The country, apart from housing the ICC headquarters, has been the go-to venue in times of crisis. It was home to Pakistan cricket for a decade, hosted multiple editions of the IPL and the Asia Cup, besides the T20 World Cup in pandemic peak.
From infrastructure and high-class venues, to transport and security, everything has been smooth and seamless this World Cup. Heat was a worry, but the temperature-regulating mechanism in the stadium ensured that the galleries did not turn into furnaces.
Says Thomas, “I have wondered about the feel of a stadium in a country without footballing culture. But this World Cup made me feel that it is the fans who make a stadium vibrant. There have been fans from all over the world and they have put on a great atmosphere.”
There is no longer a large cross-section of fans, most have left the country along with their teams and broken dreams. But among those who remain, blue is the most predominant colour. The light blue of Argentina, the dark blue of Argentina, and the royal blue of France.
“I am already feeling nervous,” says Claudio Lopez from Buenos Aires. He had watched Diego Maradona winning the World Cup in Mexico, he hopes Messi too will win in Qatar. “Nothing would match that night. We drank and sang and celebrated for a week. Every anniversary, we do the same. It’s been 36 years, I am now a grandfather, it’s time we won a third. It would be a shame if Messi ends without a World Cup,” he says.
Messi chasing the lone elusive piece of glory has been the abiding theme of the World Cup. “Sunday will be his day. He has the power of a nation’s prayer, dreams and tears behind him,” he says.
But the French have their own legacy to set – if they defend the title, they would be just the third country and the first this century to achieve the feat. That the feat has remained unachievable this century shows the enormity of it. In fact, every champion in the 21st century, barring Brazil, has crashed out in the group stages in the subsequent edition.
So both France and Argentina have their own slices of history to carve, making the final a multilayered narrative. Of Messi and Kylian Mbappe, of Diego Maradona and Didier Deschamps, of legacies and inheritances. And beyond it all, the changing perceptions about Qatar and the Middle East. As much as being a grand stage for football, the tournament has been the perfect advertisement for the Middle East.
Next Saturday, though, Qatar would be quiet, recovering from a month-long football binge.