Watching football in Qatar
Qatar's Khalfan Ibrahim, right, battles India's Mahesh Gawli for the ball during a football match in Doha. (Reuters)
A few years ago, if you had asked any football (or soccer - take your pick) fan to list fifty countries most likely to host a World Cup in the next twenty years, it is probably safe to say that very few of them would have considered the gulf state of Qatar. So, when FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would host the 2022 tournament, it was only the supremely confident Qataris who were not shocked.
So, when FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would host the 2022 tournament, the capital city, Doha, exploded in a spontaneous city-wide celebration that lasted for two whole days. Traffic ground to a halt as locals took to the streets in their cars and SUVs, standing on the roofs and waving massive Qatari flags. Hastily spray painted messages on the sides of the vehicles declared love for Qatar at the expense of expensive bodywork, and more than a few engines were damaged irreparably by the deafening symphony of revving and backfiring.
For Qataris, winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup was about so much more than football, though it is by far the biggest sport in the country. Becoming the 2022 host was the moment their nation arrived on the world stage.
The recently-renamed Qatar Stars League (QSL) has been the nation’s top-level domestic competition for about 50 years and currently contains twelve first-division teams. The current champions, Lekhwiya, have existed as a football club since 1938. If you happen to be visiting Qatar during football season, a Qatari football match is a unique experience. Attendees are usually very modest, and there are none of the extras that you might expect at a sporting event, like jumbo TV screens and half-time entertainment. Live football in Qatar is football in the raw.
Watching it live
The temptation when attending a game is to choose the biggest and best venue: Khalifa International Stadium, host of the recent Asian Cup grand final between Australia and Japan. Of all the existing stadiums in Qatar, only this architecturally-impressive structure will be used for the 2022 World Cup. It is large and modern, and has a great atmosphere when full, but international matches are scarce.
For this reason, most people will need to head to a QSL game at a smaller suburban ground to get a football fix while in Qatar. Most of the grounds are similar to each other, in that they are not very big, not very modern, and not particularly attractive, but two of the best are Al Sadd and Qatar SC Stadium.
Al Sadd, by design or by accident, has acoustics that amplify any crowd noise - sometimes alarmingly - and seats that make you feel like you are sitting on the field. The open air Qatar SC Stadium is a bit larger and can be less atmospheric, but there is something special about sitting in the warm evening air as dusk envelopes the desert and nearby skyscrapers reflect the setting sun.
Watching in comfort
If, like the majority of Qataris, you would prefer to watch your football on the television, a great way to do it in style is to head with them to Souq Waqif and surround yourself with comfortable cushions, a meal, tea and perhaps a shisha. On most weeknights during the football season, nearly all cafes and restaurants in the souq will have a TV or (more likely) a projector tuned to the game, watched by a lively and fun group of locals and expats. Even if the Arabic commentary means nothing to you, align yourself with the team supported by the other patrons and cheer along.