Arabian Days.

Having spent our first few days in Qatar in a football intensive mode, ticking off all the grounds, and getting to see all 16 teams play their opening game, the final three days were more relaxed, allowing us to see a little more of our surrounds, and choosing the better game each day.

For the first of these, we picked on a return trip to the Khalifa International Stadium. Having been beaten in the opening game, Qatar would need to pull out all the stops against a Chinese side whose victory over Kuwait had been competently managed. The earlier match would see Uzbekistan take on Kuwait, and on the evidence of the opening games, we felt this would not be a difficult task for the central Asian team.

The Stadium is part of a vast complex, known as the Aspire Zone. From my earlier visits, I had seen the stadium, the Ladies Sports Hall (which was being used as a media centre), and the Villagio Shopping Mall. But this was only part of the complex, mainly built to stage the 2006 Asian Games. (For countries in Asia, the Asian games are a very prestigious Olympic type multi-sport event. Like the Commonwealth games, but much more serious).

The two blue half domes are an indoor stadium, and the aquatic centre (i.e. swimming pool). The arches are part of the main stadium, while the tower is called “The Torch” and houses restaurants and conference venues.

Further back in the complex, there are all manner of training pitches, and a grass park area, given over as a fan zone. It was 5 Riyal (almost a pound) to enter, and most of the locals had decided it was not worth the money, leaving a few kids playing small sided football in cages, a row of food stalls without customers and sponsors stands wondering where the punters were. All arranged on a pleasant lake side location. No doubt when the football has finished, families will walk to the lake from the mall, to sit and eat picnics or play ball.

The “Fun Zone’s” Big Screen.

While wandering around, I saw Uzbekistan take the lead against Kuwait on the big screen, but did not tarry – instead taking a walk around the outer perimeter of the big stadium.

By the time I was in front of a TV screen again, Uzbekistan were 2-1 up. I now watched the closing minutes, and to be honest, Kuwait had most of the play, and were unlucky not to level the game in this period. I understand though that this was something of a late recovery, and the Uzbeks deserved the points for the performance over 90 minutes. And so once again into the stadium.

Needing a win in their second game, Qatar started on the offensive, and really should have gone ahead following a defensive error by Zhao Peng. This allowed Qatar’s Uruguay born Sebastian Soria a clear shot on goal, which he mis-kicked and sent wide. China soon came more into the game, which by mid half, had become end to end. In the 25th minute, China’s Deng Zhoxiang headed narrowly wide, but this was followed within a minute by two attempts at the other end by Yuseh Ahmed. The first went into the side netting, but the second, which followed a sublime piece of control, was thundered into the net.

I would have said that China had more of the play in the remainder of the half, but having more of the play means very little. This is especially true when one of your opponents is on form, and this was Yusuf Ahmed’s time. Receiving a pass on the edge of the penalty area, and with his back to goal, he turned in a move which was too much for defender Du Wei and slotted the ball into the bottom corner. Two nil to Qatar, and only seconds of injury time after the goal.

Qatar did a good job of shutting down the Chinese in the second half. China have always been known as a team that lacks the confidence to come back from behind, and they gave precious little sign of changing this. Indeed, while China had most of the ball in the second period, the best of the few real chances created went to Qatar. China’s cause was not helped, in that after making all three substitutions before the 60 minute mark, they played the last part of the game with ten men, following an injury to centre half Zhao Peng.

I would like to say that the locals were ecstatic over their victory, but in fact they were quite quiet about it, and the noise in this stadium never matched that generated by the Syrians or Indians for their games. The crowd was, I believe, made up mainly of actual Qatari citizens rather than the more numerous guest workers. This assumption comes from the fact that many were wearing their Arab robes.

The day finished with a sizable group of both English and German groundhoppers sharing a table in the Ramada, drinking beer at £7/pint, and watching English football live on TV. There are not many bars available in Qatar, the beer is expensive, and I feel the atmosphere is not helped by the lack of a smoking ban, (i.e. it was smoky). One has to show your passport or other identity to get in. I saw two people in Arab robes talk to the doorman and leave, (perhaps turned away for being a local Muslim?), leaving the customers in the bar as 90% white.

For my penultimate day in the territory, we had chosen the evening game, the clash between South Korea and Australia at the Qatar Sports Centre. This gave us a chance to get out of the city for the day. We looked at the various touring options suggested by our hotel, but as they started at over £50 per person, even for the straight forward coach tour, we did not fancy them. Anyway, a quick enquiry showed that car hire could be achieved for 130 Riyals, around £24 per day. The only catch was that this was Thursday, and the car hire offices (except in the airport) would be closed the next day. But as we did not need the car for the evening, this being the closest ground to our hotel, we chose to return the vehicle before the game.

We drove out to the North of the city, taking a snack in a fisherman’s café in Al Khor, the next town north of Doha. The fishermen were invariably Indian in origin, but the fishing dhows are traditional. The welcome in the café was friendly, the food and coffee relatively cheap, and certainly good.

We ventured further north on the highway, which for most of its length is subject to road works, as the infrastructure of Qatar is in the middle of an incredible building process. In a couple of years time, a three line highway will connect Doha with the northern tip of Al Shamal, but one wonders how much traffic this will take. Maybe the Al Shamal Sports Club can gain promotion, and there will be hordes of football fans heading up the motorway to their new stadium.

Al Shamal is another fishing village, not much different to Al Khor, but you cannot miss the new stadium as you approach. What you can miss is the fact that it is a new football stadium, styled as a traditional fort, with the floodlight pylons barely visible above the towers. This is as close as we could get, with the car park and access roads not yet completed.

The new stadium of Al Shamal Sports Club

A “used dhow” in Al Shamal Harbour

From here we head westward. We are now driving on a tarmac road, but through the desert. This is not the rolling sand dunes of “Lawrence of Arabia”, but a hard rocky and flat surface – the rocks making it impossible for even a 4×4 to drive off the road. There are sparse low bushes and the occasional tree out of this barren landscape, and from time to time we saw camels grazing. Following the ancient arab proverb, “Trust in Allah, but first tether your camel”, we could see that these camels had their front legs tied together. This allowed them movement across the area to graze on the meagre rations, but prevented them from breaking into a run, so they would still be close when their owner returned.

Further west, one reaches the Al Zubarah Fort. In a land with few sites for the tourists, this is picture postcard land, but it is in fact both small, and rather recently (1936) built. This of course means that it is in a good state of preservation. The old town that it was built to protect having disappeared into the sand, as the pearl fishing industry has practically died out from Qatar waters, and the population has migrated to Doha. We arrived around one o’clock, and the guidebooks said the place would be closed. It was certainly deserted, and we saw no one else, but the door was not locked, so we just walked in and looked around.

All in all, we made a 300 km trip around the north of the country and were away from the city for less than 6 hours. With petrol (the premium brand) at 15p/litre, we paid under £4 for fuel, a total travel cost for the day of 150 Riyals, less than £30.

We returned the car, and walked for 30 minutes around the construction sites to the Qatar Sports Club. By this time we knew that Saudi Arabia had lost 1-0 to Jordan. Saudi Arabia had sacked their coach, Jose Peseiro after their opening defeat by Syria. Nassar Al Johor returned for his fifth spell in charge, but he must have known this was a stop gap measure, as the second defeat left them knocked out, and with Japan still to play. Indeed within a day of the Saudi team returning home, the entire management team was gone, while Prince Sultan bin Fahd lost his job as president of the Saudi FC after the second defeat to be replaced by Prince Nawaf bin Faisal. (Is there a common theme here? Naturally with changing members of the Royal family as leader of the association, it is no surprise that the hiring and firing is done directly by the King).

So with Saudi already knocked out, Syria knew that a win in this match meant certain qualification for the next round. Syria had the majority of the crowd at the Qatar Sports Club willing them to get past the group stage of the Asian Cup for the first time. Japan, however are happy to be favourites and play it with confidence and a certain swagger. It makes for an interest game as the noise levels rise for Syria’s breaks. It is the running of Shini Kagawa that breaks the spell, a long run sees him take the ball from the left wing to the right side of the six yard box, his shot is stopped, but Matsui lays off the loose ball to Hasebe to open the scoring on 35 minutes.

The second half starts with a similar pattern, Japan confident but not quite doing enough to unlock the Syrian defence again, while breakaways at the other end are always dangerous.

On the seventy minute mark, we have what has to be the most controversial incident during my trip. As Japan half cleared a Syrian attack, the Syrian attacker is closest to the goal. The ball is immediately played back to his feet, and the linesman’s flag is raised. Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima reacts quickly, diving for the ball, and bowling over the Syrian before pushing it away. The referee’s first action is to signal to the linesman to put down his flag, as he was ruling the attacker not offside.

If the attacker was not offside, then the laws are clear – a penalty for Syria, and a red card for the goalkeeper. This is the decision of the referee, but it takes some four minutes of protest before the Japanese substitute goalkeeper sees the ball kicked past him from the spot. Looking at the replays, the reason for the referee’s decision is clear, but not whether he got it right. Two players, one from each side went for the cleared ball, and if the Japanese was the only player to touch the ball, then the referee would be right. If the Syrian got either the kick or a deflection then the offside is correct. A goalkeeper can be sanctioned for a challenge on an offside player, (although a red card would then be harsh), but a penalty cannot be given as the ball is already dead.

After the match, we see the Asian way of sweeping controversy under the carpet. While every goal scored in this tournament has been replayed on TV from many angles, the crucial challenge prior to the penalty is only ever broadcast from the one camera angle. This leaves the matter of whether it was a through pass or not debatable, although it does appear that the white boot of the Syrian player is the one that kicks the ball. At the press conference, the Japanese coach insists that there will be an appeal against the red card, and naturally we await the result with interest. But the appeal is dismissed, not because the referee was correct, but because the appeal was not made in time – apparently it must be made within two hours of the end of the match. Now it could be an hour or more before the coach is finished with the press conference, making it almost impossible for the appeal to reach the authorities in time. I loved the AFC statement, “No appeal was made in time, everything else is correspondence”.

Seven minutes later, the referee gives another penalty, with far less fuss. Shinji Okazaki is fouled by Ali Dyab, and Japan retake the lead through Keisuke Honda. From this point on, the game is almost one way traffic as Syria attack desperately against the ten men of Japan, and they are given six minutes of injury time, (although with the penalty delay, this is on the low side) . It was a Japanese breakaway that caused the biggest incident. Nadim Sabag was booked for fouling Okazaki near the edge of the area. As the Japanese delay taking the free kick, Sabag does not keep back tne yards, and picks up his second booking without the ball coming into play since the first

The free kick is cleared, and this is the last incident of note. Japan and Jordan end the day on 4 points, Syria on three, but the advantage is with Japan whose final match is against Saudi Arabia.