Monday, 17 January 2011

AFC Asian Cup 2011 in Qatar

Have Qatar, will travel

Not strictly speaking a European Football Weekend, but when the legend that is our big hearted German friend Stoffers, rides off to Qatar for the Asian Cup, then we're willing to waive the small print:

I must admit I still haven't fully recovered from the moment when Sepp Blatter opened that envelope some five weeks ago to reveal Qatar as hosts of the 2022 World Cup. Not that any FIFA decision should still surprise me, but honestly, why would anyone in their right mind award a major football tournament to tiny peninsula with a single city, where summer temperatures of more than 45°C are not unheard of? A place where football still ranks way behind falconry and camel racing as the #1 sport? Or even dune bashing (more about that later). Well, we all know the answer, don't we?

Who needs camel racing when we can get your mitts on this?

Anyway, I started to develop some interest about the place and consulted the interweb to learn more. And behold, I found out that Qatar will also be hosting the 2011 Asian Cup finals this January – a much better time to play football in the Gulf region anyway, with daytime highs of no more than 25°C (and apparently someone must have told FIFA by now anyway). Well, that would actually make a nice break from the terrible winter here in Berlin, I thought, and so I called up a few people who might feel likewise. With a clash between Iraq and Iran waiting for us, the two Koreas participating (not in the same group though), and footballing minnows like Uzbekistan or India mingling with big weights like Japan and Australia, it became clear: We had to go on our first ever QFW - Qatari Football Weekend! (Haha! Very original –Ed.)

I teamed up with Arminia Hannover's top boys Bundestorsten and BTH-Jens as well as with EFW lifetime member Nashdog from the Embassy of Bochum at Barnet (or was it the other way around!?). Three days later flights, hotel and match tickets were booked and so the four of us took off for some fun-packed days in Doha. The fine people at Türk Hava Yolları (a.k.a. Turkish Airlines), our preferred carrier, provided us with a 5-hour layover in the great city of Istanbul – just enough time to head into town to have a Döner Kebab and wash it down with a some draft Efes. Incidentally, these were to be the last beers on the entire trip! Not that I didn't spend hours of dedicated research during sleepless nights before the trip to gather as much information as possible on where to get my hands on a pint in Doha at what price – only to find out that we would be looking at prices in the 5-10 euro range in some of the posh 5-star hotel bars that are licensed. And bringing alcohol into the country is illegal. Anyway, we love to do as the locals do, and so decided to stay tea-total for our entire sojourn.

Captions you thought you'd never read on these pages Part 1: EFW goes tea-total.

After all, we came here for the football – but not just for that. Some people may say I have no clue about football anyway as I don't even support a successful team. I don't like these people. They don't know what they're talking about. Still, I rather leave match reports to the real experts. Go to Al-Jazeera Sports for line-ups, tactics and goal scorers or – even better – The Ball is Round, who sent their own correspondents for some more in-depth coverage about the AFC Asian Cup. I'll focus on what you may – or may not – experience in Doha as a foreign visitor and football tourist.

After arriving in the wee hours of 2am at Doha International Airport, we first noticed that the entire staff at the passport controls were women clad in black burkas. Initially I concluded this was to demonstrate that women have indeed equal rights in what is a monarchy with a rather traditional interpretation of Muslim laws. However, I always wondered how a fully veiled woman could actually go through airport security. And then it occurred to me that in Islam it's customary that only a woman may ask another woman to unveil her face to check it against her passport photo. For us, entering the country didn't pose a problem at all: Visas good for 30 days were issued on the spot against a credit card payment of 100 Qatari Riyals (approx. £20). And off we went to the Arrivals hall to meet up with Abdul, a helpful local bloke I got to know through one of the backpacker travel forums. He offered to pick us up at this unholy time, drive us to our hotel across the road, and be available any time this week in case we run into an emergency. Nice gesture.

We had booked ourselves into a newly opened business hotel and took advantage of an introductory offer that gave us 2 suites with a total of 3 bedrooms (all with their own bathroom), a kitchen, a huge sitting area and flatscreen TVs in every room but the loo. All for a mere £25 p.p.p.n. The advertised rooftop pool was still under construction and some of the staff obviously never worked in the hotel business before. But some minor shortcomings aside (like the daily quest for towels), it was a top place to stay! Congratulations, if you're still reading this. Now let's continue with some football, shall we?

EFW on tour.

Scraping the barrel.

Having booked our selection of match tickets online beforehand, we only needed to pick them up from one of the ticket outlets conveniently located in the city's shopping malls. Now this is where a minor schoolboy error comes into place: After arriving at Doha's biggest of that kind, the City Center Mall, I noticed that I had left the booking confirmation at the hotel. As we already spent some considerable time queuing behind clueless Indians who were overwhelmed by the amount of decisions to be made in order to determine the perfect combination of match/day/stadium/section/ price category, we simply bought another set of tickets for today's match. Prices were very reasonable: The equivalent of 3, 5 or 8 euros for the category of your choice. The most expensive, a VIP ticket for the final, would set you back a whopping 30 euros.

This AFC Asian Cup in Qatar was to be played in a total of 5 different stadiums, 4 of them located within Doha. So we opted for a match in each of the five, leaving us with enough time to get to explore the rest of the city. Our first match was scheduled for Qatar Sports Club, only a short 20 minute stroll from the mall, so we decided to walk. It proved that Doha is clearly not designed for pedestrians. Anyone can afford to drive with petrol being available at 14 cents a litre. But without any major hassle and after crossing a couple of dual carriageways we made it to the QSC.

Match 1:
Japan 1, Jordan 1
Sunday, 09/01/2011
Qatar Sports Club, Doha, Att. 6,255

Tight security measures had been put on at the stadium with airport-type scanners at the gates. Drink containers and cigarette lighters were confiscated (all venues were designated non-smoking areas). The Qatari football league is made up of two divisions, with 12 teams in the Qatar Stars League, and another six competing in Division 2. Most of the clubs are based in Doha and each of them comes with their own stadium, five of them we'll see for the matches, while some others like Al-Ahli and Al-Arabi are used as training grounds for the tournament's participating teams.

QSC holds 20,000 but was only filled to a third of its capacity for our own personal opening match (the tournament kicked off two days earlier). There was quite a number of Japanese faces in the crowd, but Jordan's support clearly maintained the upper hand. It is difficult to say how many of the fans are foreign workers or ex-pats residing in Qatar, and how many actually travelled. And in regards to supporting other squads, the locals tend to rather support one of their brother nations than someone from outside the Muslim world. So I believe that the good support Jordan put on that day was helped by their fellow believers from Qatar.
On the pitch, Japan was a disappointment despite the fact I could actually recognise some well-known names in their starting eleven like Kagawa, Honda, Hasebe, etc. Jordan dominated the match but the stoppage time equaliser by Yoshida left Japan with a lucky point.

Overall, an enjoyable sunny afternoon with some mediocre performance on the pitch, and – did I mention it before? – no beer. However, there were snack stalls selling nibbles as well as water, soft drinks and the infamous Pocari Sweat. And apart from an Al-Jazeera Sports stall, no merchandise of the AFC Asian Cup was available. Not even programmes or anything with a logo on. They need to work on that. Football fans and groundhoppers like their souvenirs. So the colourful match tickets, some photographs and our memories remain the only things to take home. However, I had the chance to meet up with the likewise non-accredited correspondents of the TBIR blog, Dan and Brian, to exchange our impressions of Doha and the tournament so far.

Match 2:
India 0, Australia 4
Monday, 10/01/2011
Al-Sadd Stadium, Doha, Att. 9,783

Cheer up chaps. It's The Al-Sadd Stadium.

The next day saw us at Al-Sadd (a.k.a. Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium), a rather modern, fully covered all-seater with a capacity of 15,000 and seats painted in Fulham colours. The smallest ground in the competition still proved to be too big for the encounter between Australia and India. India are probably the weakest team in the tournament, and observing their slender players struggling with physically strong, six-foot tall Aussies was like watching a school boys' selection playing a senior rugby team. And despite the fact that Australia never really managed to convince with technical supremacy, the 4-0 result speaks for itself. India didn't have the slightest of a chance.

BTH-Jens quite appropriately commented that "watching the events on the stands is much more enjoyable than the game itself". In fact, India attracted lots of their countrymen who work in Qatar. And whenever you get a large amount of Indians in one place, there is room for hilarity. Figuring out where to sit based on the section, row and seat numbers printed on the ticket, along with the consequent group discussion, was a bit too much for some of the construction workers. Bringing oversized lunch packs for the whole family to the ground was another peculiarity. But we all enjoyed the Indian roar that came about with every touch of the ball like it was a last-minute golden chance in a cup final. They love to get excited.

Some of the their supporters' antics reminded me of previous trips to India, and for the rest of the match our conversations circled about India as a travel destination, where you'll find the good, the bad, and the ugly. You either love it or hate it. Or both. For my part, I definitely want to return many times to the subcontinent. That evening we treated ourselves to a nice Indian dinner at the humble Afia restaurant across the street from our hotel. It's more like a workers' canteen with no Western faces apart from ours. Expect to pay 2-3 euros for your choice of a literally finger-licking good curry, vegetables, rice and/or bread and a soft drink. No wine served. Spoons on demand.

Match 3:
Iraq 1, Iran 2
Tuesday, 11/01/2011
Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al-Rayyan, Att. 10,478

Al-Rayyan is the only ground of this tournament outside of Doha proper. It's located right by the highway in the desert, about 10 miles west of the city. We were a bit worried about the transport situation as we've heard from other resources – including a certain report from another English football blog's correspondent – that taxis are really difficult to find aside from Doha's main landmarks (read shopping malls). However, getting there was easy. And getting back was even easier: As we left the ground after the match we were immediately approached an army of taxi drivers competing for our business, with their turquoise Karwa taxis lined up neatly – probably more than there was demand.

Walk this way to the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.

Don't try this at home. An Iranian girl in celebratory mode.

Stand up if you love Iraq.

Just before the game, we were lured into an Iraqis ambush – or guerrilla marketing campaign as it is also known. Free Iraq jerseys and plastic mini flags were handed out outside the stadium, only to be confiscated by security inside the stadium as they all came with some sponsor's name printed on it in Arabic. We were quick enough to evaluate the situation and acted fast to hide and keep our first items of merchandise at this tournament.

Again, only some 10,000 populated the 25,000 capacity stadium, and we found ourselves seated in the Iraqi section, who outnumbered the Iranian supporters by 2-to-1. The atmosphere was cheerful and at times quite noisy, generally very friendly between the two sets of fans, no animosities or even violence at all. A very entertaining evening ensued with Iraq taking the lead and looking the stronger team in the first half. To cut it short, the match between the two was the best we were to watch during our one-week stay. Their neighbours from the other side of the Euphrates and Tigris never gave up though, equalised just before halftime break and continued to score the winner six minutes from time.

On Wednesday, we had some time to kill before the evening match at the Kahlifa Stadium. And due to the lack of historic sights or anything else of touristic interest (apart from the formidable Museum of Islamic Art we visited already), we decided to head to the Villagio Mall, which happens to be across the road from the stadium.

The Villagio is not an average mall as you may imagine. Its shops are designed in a Venetian style, covered by a curved blue sky with little white fluffy clouds painted on it. And it even comes with a canal, on which you may take a ride in an electric gondola. Very European, but in fact more Disneyland than Venice. An ice rink (home to the Qatar Raiders icehockey team) located in the midst of an enormously sized food court, a ferris wheel, and even a rollercoaster keeps everyone happy who gets tired of all that shopping. Between the mall and the stadium stands Qatar's tallest building, the 980ft Aspire Tower, which would make a great vantage point. However, the viewing platform is not in use. It was built in the design of a giant torch to hold the flame during the 2006 Asian Games.

Match 4:
China 0, Qatar 2
Wednesday, 12/01/2011
Al-Khalifa Stadium, Doha, Att. 30,778

Holding my imaginary friend (beer) at the Al-Khalifa.

The Khalifa is Qatar's national stadium and currently the biggest with a capacity of 50,000. The host of a tournament usually gets the biggest crowds – it's not any different here – but they failed to sell out the opening match (37,143) as well as tonight's game against the People's Republic of China (30,778). This time some freebies were available such as Qatari flags and 80's style silk (rather polyester) scarves that actually look quite nice. We had great seats on the sideline, along with the majority of the Qatari supporters, and there was singing and clapping throughout the game. Every other section had their capo starting chants by means of a megaphone (a bit too close to our seats though for my liking).

We continued with our habit of predicting scores before the match, and apart from correctly guessing India's defeat the other day, we always failed. And we did so again tonight. Who would have thought that little Qatar can beat mighty China by two goals!? It was really nice though to see how everyone celebrated like the already won the World Cup.

There's other things in life than just football, and being not just mere groundhoppers, we also show some interest in what else a country has to offer. And in Qatar that is sand. They have lots of it. So for the next day we booked a 4x4 and a driver to head out to the desert for the day. We headed down to Khor al Adaid (the "inland sea"), an inlet of the Persian Gulf near the Saudi border. This area is only accessible off road, and so after leaving the termac half an hour south of Doha, our driver Ali deflated the tires of his Toyota Landcruiser to get a better grip on the sandy surface. We soon realised that we were not in for a mellow ride across the desert when Ali showed us what locals refer to "dune bashing": Navigating a sand dune by driving to the top of it and waiting for the perfect moment to head down its other side. Very much like a surfer is looking out for the perfect wave. It's been a hell of a white-knuckle ride before we reached the lake but thoroughly enjoyable. At times we were heading down the dunes at a spead of 60 km/h in a 45° angle. More than once did we fear that the car would roll over. An experience I'd definetely recommend to anyone who's bored with roller coasters!

After returning back to base camp after an exciting football-free day it was time to pay a visit to Souk Waqif, the new old bazar in the centre of town. It's actually the location of the old bazar, which had been torn down to build a new bazar that looks old. Probably too sterile if you like the atmosphere of bazars in places like Cairo or Sana'a. But this is Doha, one of the richest places on this planet, so it needs a market that preserves the flavour of an oriental market but with the hygiene and comfort of a mall. Plenty of people about, including numerous Saudi fans, who were the first out of the competition after losing their second match straight.

Match 5:
Australia 1, South Korea 1
Friday, 14/01/2011
Al-Gharafa Stadium, Doha, Att. 15,526

The floodies at Al-Gharafa. So that's why they got the World Cup. Fairly do's.

Sooner than we wished our last day in Qatar has arrived. One more ground to make before embarking on our flight back home in the middle of the night at 2:55am. The Al-Gharafa Stadium is basically a copy of the Al-Rayyan, i.e. the two are identical buildings with the same layout and stands. Only the colour of the seats are different.

Again, the Aussies were anything else than convincing, technically inapt and slow on the ball. I very much preferred the Koreans' agile passing and quick drive towards the goal. Unfortunately, their efforts weren't awarded with 3 points.

In the meantime we had figured out that the organisers of the tournament had arranged free shuttle buses for supporters from the stadiums to some strategic locations throught town. As most people in Qatar drive themselves, only a small number of foreign tourists availed of them.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable stay in Qatar – in many aspects much better than expected. Very welcoming and helpful people, great food at bargain prices, pleasant climate (in winter that is!). I trust them to do anything to make it a great location for the World Cup in 11 years' time – as long as it will not be held in summer. Sure, they need to work on the infrastructure and public transport, but I guess they are aware of it by now. Of course, it still won't be a major footballing nation by 2022, and much had been moaned about the lack of football history in the Gulf region. But hey, why not? For sure, it's a great travel destination. Go and see for yourself.

The bottom line is that Qatar is so rich that they will continue to buy or build whatever they like. Be it international sporting events, new desert cities or even more spectacular skyscrapers and shopping malls – and of course stadiums. One thing they can't buy, I dare to say, and which is very unlikely to ever take place in down in Doha, is the annual EFW Oktoberfest! (Think again. Everyone can be bought! –Ed).

The Stadiums

Qatar Sports Club, Doha.

Al-Sadd Stadium, Doha.

Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al-Rayyan.

Al-Khalifa Stadium, Doha.

Al-Gharafa Stadium, Doha.

-Feel free to comment below -


Anonymous said...

What a smörgåsbord from the boy Stoffers! Only looked at the pix so far but I'm lovin the panoramiques of the stadia... and the Iranian laydees :P Danke, Herr doktor Stoffl :)

SMangat said...

Great stuff as usual. Let me know if you leave europe again and make it stateside as I'd love to help out.

1860er said...

Thanks for your comments.

Two clarifications on the article (as some alert readers pointed out):

1. Burkas are worn in Afghanistan. Qatari ladies wear an abaya and shayla and sometimes a negab (face cover).

2. My comment on the role of football versus falconry and camel racing is to be taken with a pinch of salt. It's an exaggeration meant to illustrate that the latter two are traditional pastimes in the Gulf region. Footbal has indeed become very popular in Qatar.

Chris O said...

Thank you for an excellent insight into a taste of what the footballing experience will be like over there come 2022. It seems that the widespread fears of many Westerners that the World Cup in Qatar will be unmanageable need to visit the place for themselves! Of course, the heat (if held in the summer) and attendances of non-Arabian countries may be a real issue, but they have over a decade to figure out that cooling technology and get the aviation companies onside. :)

DJ said...

WOW... That was one of the best insight review I have read so far about the AFC Qatar. I am glad that you and your friends enjoyed your stay in Qatar. Thank you very much for your honest point of view and I am sure many like you felt the same during their stay here. It was my pleasure to pick you up from the airport but felt bad for not meeting you guyz during the games.

Wishing you, your friends and your families the very best of life has to offer.

Warm regards,

Abdul Rab

. said...

Wow...really great stuff! do get around!....Im keen to take a find tooth comb to it all on the weekend when I have more time...
Loved the shot of the stadium and the two Arab head dresses up close..