First Days in Qatar

Transferring from cold, damp, Heathrow to hot, humid Doha is a relatively straight forward process. We flew Emirates, leaving London somewhere near the back of one of the new A380 Airbuses. Emirates have more leg room than most airlines, and much better video entertainment, so with the plane being well short of full, the ride was quite comfortable. From Dubai, we quickly found our onward flight to Doha. Getting through immigration was slow, but it did not take us long to reach the hotel. Too early, in fact for the room to be ready, so we spent 90 minutes waiting around in the reception area before going up to the room. To be accurate, I spent the time in the lobby (where the internet connection is free, you have to pay to use it from the room), Kevin went walking and in search of the first match ticket of the trip.

I shall leave my impressions of Qatar itself for another blog, once I have taken more time to see it. This time I relaxed in the hotel until the room was ready, and then freshened up and took 40 winks before heading to the stadium.

When it came to obtaining tickets, the English visitors were in three categories. Those that had managed to obtain press accreditation, those who had bought tickets on the internet in advance, and those trying to buy tickets on the day. Despite the opening match being flagged as sold out even before we arrived in the country. Soon after arriving at the hotel, Kevin went on a trip to a ticket office and managed to get a ticket with just a few minutes of queuing. Dave, meanwhile had pre-ordered his tickets, and went to a different ticket office, in the shopping centre near to the Khalifa Stadium at about the time it opened in the afternoon. What he found was a disorganised scrum around the ticket booth. The booth was supposed to print both pre-ordered tickets and new ones, but just getting into a position and asking a question was near impossible. The ticket booth’s operators had a problem that you had to enter a single block number to see if there were any tickets available in the block, and they were continually searching the blocks that were sold, and not those that were not. They could not print all Dave’s tickets for different games due to printer problems, but he did eventually get his ticket for the opening game. He tried again after the game (and again unsuccessfully), before getting them the next day.

For Steve and I, picking up our accreditation for the tournament was straight forward enough, but this allowed us to use the Main Media Centre, and did not actually include match accreditation. Confirmation that we had been accredited for individual games is supposed to be sent by e-mail, but this was not done. The media web site did not have the confirmation during the morning, but when we tried again, it was in fact confirmed. This process where you cannot confirm much in advance that you are listed for tickets is repeated every game, but if you are not listed, they simply add you to the list as the media benches are not actually full.

The Khalifa Stadium is the National Stadium for Qatar. It dates back to 1976, but was massively renovated for the Asian Games in 2005, and will need to be rebuilt almost in its entirety for 2022. It has an athletics track, but this has been covered with an artificial grass covering for the event. On our arrival, the pitch itself is entirely covered with a white plastic sheet, the effect is enough to make visitors complain that they hoped to leave the snow behind in England. This was removed shortly before kick-off, to reveal a grass pitch in perfect condition. The stands are curved both behind the goal (to allow for the track) and also along the sides, meaning the centre is further from the touchlines than the corners, and the stands are deeper and go back further in these positions. There is a single tier of seating all the way around, except for two small gaps, as the stands for each side are not connected.

A second tier is added centrally on the West side of the ground, and above, some arched steel superstructure supports a stretched membrane roof. This is probably intended to keep the VIPs (and possibly the pitch) in shadow, rather than protect from other elements, but with all the matches at Khalifa having an evening kick off, this will not be put to the test.

An arch, asymmetrical to the west side’s structure rising above the east side, supported by a number of steel cables, and holding some of the floodlights, (there are also four stubby floodlight pylons rising out of the east stand – the west side lights are all held from the roof of the stand). On the approach, the ground has a slightly odd feel, hardly that of a major stadium. This feeling is not helped by the fact the ground is within a complex, surrounded by other structures, and the centrepiece is not the stadium, but the neighbouring Aspire tower. Note that about a third of the way up this structure, there is a TV screen, replaying live the match next door!

After an opening ceremony that was involved a large number of noisy fireworks, and some effective lighting affects, the games got away on time. Both teams lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, but in the early part of the game, Qatar were quicker to commit men to the attack, and by doing so left spaces in the defence that the Uzbeks could try and utilise. It was the experience of Alexander Geynrikh and Maksim Shatskikh that most likely to produce a goal, and Geynrikh did shave the post with one shot. But as they half continued, Uzbekistan seemed to have less conviction going forward, and seemed more satisfied to go into the break still level. Two free kicks, both taken by the Brazilian born Fabio Cesar Montizene may have threatened this equilibrium, but the best reached was again the post.

Qatar renewed their attacking intentions at the start of the second period, but they were not doing enough to cause any discomfort to Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks themselves seemed to have little intention of going forward, instead laying the ball back and trying what appeared to be ridiculous long shots. Only appeared to be, as one apparently purposeless backward move found centre half Odil Akhmedov some 25 yards out, from where he blasted a shot just under the bar to give his side a lead just before the hour.

That the home fans did not appear to have much faith in their team’s chances of recovery. When the official corwd of 37,143 was read out on 75 minutes, at least 10% had already left. A minute later, one of the home defenders made the cardinal error of a soft pass in front of his own goal, Djepparov was more aware than the other defenders, and Qatar were 2-0 down.

On the next day, we made our way out to the Al-Gharafa stadium for the other game in the group, Kuwait and China. Despite being a clear and warm day, there was a beat of a breeze for the afternoon, keeping the humidity down and meaning conditions for the match were very pleasant. The Al-Gharafa stadium was built in 2003, and holds 22,000. It is a modern stadium with a single tier of seats going around to a uniform height all around. There are slight curves both behind the goals, and along the sides, but there is no running track here. Blocks of seats are alternately blue and yellow, the club colours of Al-Gharafa in the Qatari League.

Both sides started the game in 4-2-3-1 formation and with a lot of speed and effort. Kuwait seemed to have the better of the early exchanges, and had what looked like a good appear for a penalty in the 13th minute for an apparent foul on Al Mutwa by Du Wie.. China’s best early chance saw Qu Bo hit the side netting after receiving an excellent crossfield pass from Zhao Xuri

Qatar had Mesad Nada sent off for kicking the Chinese forward Yang Xu after he had been fouled and both players were lying on the ground. It was a bit of a “Beckham moment”, but the Australia referee did get the decision correct. Immediately afterwards, a substitution took off Kuwait’s lone forward, placing them almost in a 4-2-3-0 formation. Although the early pace of the game had faded by this point, Kuwait were still trying to make good use of their 10 men, containing the Chinese, and then trying the break out down the wings, so as Bader Al Mutwa could push through the centre. Kuwait could have taken the lead on the stroke of half time, when a free kick taken by Al Mutwa was touched just wide by Hussein Fadhel.

Even with ten men, Kuwait had the better of the opening exchanges after the break, but it was China who scored first. A corner was part cleared to the edge of the area, from where Zhang Linpeng struck a shot, which was then took a massive deflection off Hussain Fadhel. A free kick from just outside the area ten minutes later was powerfully struck home by Deng Zhouxiang, adding to the Kuwaiti misery. China were well in control for the rest of the game and could have added another when Rong Hao was pushed through and forced a save.

Overall, Kuwait must be disappointed not to have picked up something from this game, but the Chinese proved stronger and took their chances. The official crowd for the game was 7423, over half of these were supporting Kuwait, while China also had well over 1000 supporters. No doubt some of the team’s supporters, especially among the Kuwait section were ex-pats working in Qatar, while other locals were at a premium.

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