“Please stop! This energy is too much”
We are minutes from kick-off in Tuesday’s round of 16 clash between Morocco and Spain and, at the Fifa Fan Festival in Al-Bidda Park, sarcasm breaks out.
In a tournament where every entertainer holding a microphone seems to be at pains to stress that all is wonderful, the presenter’s quip borne out of frustration is welcome. There has to be a ceiling for forced enthusiasm.
A couple of hundred spectators are scattered around the main stage where a covers band has lashed out Coldplay and Black Eyed Peas numbers to a static crowd.
Fifa had to turn punters away from their fanpark on its first night in this festival style open air venue positioned in an area where the Doha Corniche functions as the backdrop. Gianni Infantino has described it as the ‘heart’ of the competition but two weeks in, the early evening footfall was slow.
A futile cry from the local host to ask if there were any Spaniards in the house temporarily pushed him over the edge before he clicked back into the buzz mode. “Make some noise, you are better than this,” he declared as the screens behind him showed the players assembling in the tunnel. “ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?”
The answer was left open to interpretation. At 6pm, the beating heart was still. This space big enough for 40,000 guests was sparsely populated, the pockets in attendance spread around the various amenities. It’s a family friendly environment; there’s a small queue for an arena featuring 4 v 4 football and other activities for the young ones.
Minutes can be passed in a mini FIFA museum with quirky pieces of memorabilia, such as the actual yellow card that reduced Paul Gascoigne to tears in Italia ’90, the original teamsheet minus Ronaldo before the 1998 final and the battered boots worn by Brazil’s Ademir, the top scorer in 1950.
Beyond that, it’s a showcase for Fifa sponsors to display their finery, there’s a Qatar Airways exhibition, a Kia showroom with a car simulator, and Hyundai have an art installation entitled ‘the greatest goal’ which is apparently pushing a message for sustainability. “Reflecting these values, two human torsos emerge from the earth like colossal goalposts, their outstretched arms linked together at the centre in solidarity to form a gigantic crossbar,” reads the sign next to what the untrained eye would describe as dancing robots doing the same routine every five minutes to muted applause.
This is located in the same area as Fifa’s ‘Football Unites Us’ tent, a blaze of bluster built around their popular catchphrase.
There are well intentioned aspects, a concept called ‘Doha Debates’ where guests can sit in and chat in a Zoom style conference about weighty topics with individuals based in their own Big Brother-style diary rooms elsewhere around the world.
Venues include Gaza, Iraq and Rwanda to reflect a global outlook with a political slant (the focus on football message is selective)
Next door to that is a green wall pushing the merits of recycling and taking care of the planet where there’s a recurring video message from Infantino talking about ‘minding the environment.’
For the journalist who realised 10 days into the tournament that there’s a string of largely empty 40-52 seater buses running every 30 minutes day and night to bring media and others to their hotels, the idea that Fifa are consistently tuned into this message is open to scrutiny.
Travelling with more than one other person on these accommodation shuttles is a surprise. Daily shuttle flights in and out of Qatar to neighbouring countries have made a mockery of the pledge to make this a carbon neutral event. This is another exhibit of what Fifa says versus what Fifa does.
Which brings us to the booze. Bringing the World Cup to a dry(ish) country was a major talking point and Qatar pulled a last minute landlord card to prevent the sale of alcohol in stadiums. The fanpark was cited as the place where nothing had changed. Red signs announce that ‘international beverages’ can be consumed within designated areas. 7pm is kickoff with no beer on site until that juncture unless you happen to be in hospitality (temperance comes with a price plan).
This is Budweiser’s world so everybody else lives in it; the woman from London explaining to security that she had celiac disease was going to have a sober evening. It’s Budweiser at 50 riyals (€13) or Bud Zero at 30 (€7.80) or otherwise it’s coke, chips, burgers or whatever else you might fancy from the internationally themed food stalls (or Costa Coffee.)
Queues are steadily building up by half-time in the Morocco match and it must be said that the audience is too. “There’s 44,000 people there and 30,000 people here!” announces our galvanised host, and while that doesn’t appear to be remotely accurate – in terms of that amount being there at one time anyway – numbers do grow.
Security and cleaners move between the audience to pick up the empties while police weave in and out of the crowds too. The sight of dozens of pairs of shoes outside a busy male prayer room reflects that this park has to offer different things for different people.
In Irish terms, the atmosphere the mood is more eclectic funfair than Electric Picnic. There’s a greater volume of parents with their kids, and natives in their thobes and abayas and a distinct absence of groups of young lads losing their minds.
Everything is kept in check, but Morocco’s bid to stay alive eventually stirs emotions. They do have fans present that weren’t able to get into the ground, which was part of the original vision for this concept.
While the majority of the crowd sit for the match, they stand for the shootout and Achraf Hakimi’s winning penalty is celebrated by Qataris, Saudis and Moroccans alike. A Palestine flag is produced amid the jubilation as camera phones and a small number of camera crews circle around the happiest group of Moroccans. The mission, effectively, to capture a bit of atmosphere to justify the journey.
Those good vibes last for a little bit longer than expected. The MC is now fully warmed up, announcing to loud cheers that every Arab fan will be supporting Morocco in the first World Cup in the Arab world before introducing a local band that seem to have a big following.
It all sounds a bit alien to European ears but that’s no bad thing as the energy is natural and the end product is infinitely better than whatever is created by the earlier tribute act that drove home the feeling we’re all experiencing a fake, sanitised version of the real thing.
This is why it’s easy to get drawn into the Moroccan story. The second game of the night, the all-European clash of Portugal and Switzerland, was never going to generate the same high.
A safe assumption to make here is that any of the supporters who have travelled from Europe to support their countries are either in the stadium or around it trying to pick up tickets. There’s quite a few Portugal shirts around the fan park, but they are Ronaldo accessories rather than a reflection of national pride.
A half-time dance-off on the stage between two sets of Portugal ‘fans’ reveals the respective sides are from India and the Philippines, with the announcement of those countries drawing a reaction which suggests the respective nations were well represented in the crowd. It figures, given the proportion they make up of the working populations.
The Moroccans have long since made their way into the night, bringing with them the unrehearsed atmosphere and the allure of intoxicating authenticity of spontaneous emotions. Forget the empty, vacuous gestures. This is the only way football truly unites us all.