Long lines, scarce beers and packed trains: What Socceroos fans can expect in Qatar

Doha: Slowly but surely, the buzz is building. As approximately a million football fanatics prepare to descend on Doha this weekend for the biggest sporting event the Arab world has seen, this country is rising to the moment it has been waiting more than a decade for.

Just don’t expect it to be like any other World Cup. And don’t expect it to be smooth sailing either.

We’ve long known this would be an unusual tournament – at least when viewed through a western lens – but that reality was emphatically underlined on Friday by FIFA’s abrupt U-turn on the sale of alcohol outside stadiums just two days out from the opening match between host nation Qatar and Ecuador.

Fans had long been promised they would be able to buy a beer before or after games but, reportedly at the behest of the Qatari royal family, those plans have been scrapped. That could be problematic for FIFA’s multimillion-dollar contract with Budweiser, and the company tweeted what everyone was thinking as the story broke: “Well, this is awkward …”

The post was deleted shortly afterwards, and a showdown is surely brewing between Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is the company that owns the American brand, and football’s global governing body. Of course, alcohol will still be obtainable for those who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for corporate suites inside the stadiums – after all, double standards are eternal everywhere.

What’s clear is that FIFA isn’t really running the show any more, Qatar is.

A group of Brazilian fans sing and dance along Doha’s Corniche.Credit:Getty

Most people in this ultra-conservative Islamic nation couldn’t seem to care less about the availability of beer, or Qatar’s human rights record, or their hardline stance on same-sex relationships, or the concept of “sportswashing”.

For days, the city has felt rather dead, devoid of any sense of true World Cup fever. Banners, billboards and placards bearing the images of the sport’s most famous stars are everywhere, yet fans have been invisible.

Perhaps they’ve been hiding from the still-searing heat of what is supposed to be a Qatari winter. Temperatures are hovering about 33 degrees during the day and, while the nights are pleasant, any walk longer than a few minutes has the potential to engage the sweat glands at deeply uncomfortable levels.

But on a steamy Friday night along Doha’s glittering waterfront promenade, the Corniche, thousands of revellers gathered anticipating what is about to unfold. Many of them, including a large band of Brazilian supporters who danced through the street, appeared to be local workers co-opting the colours of one of football’s traditional powers. There is talk of “fake fans” being paid to provide some much-needed atmosphere, but there was nothing artificial about their passion.

Skyscraper billboards featuring football superstars like Neymar are everywhere in Doha.Credit:Getty

There were plenty of Bangladeshi flags, too, proudly waved by migrant workers from the nation ranked 192 in the world by FIFA and has never qualified for the tournament, but who were clearly eager to get in on the fun regardless.

There wasn’t a single Socceroos jersey in sight. They’re coming, albeit in relatively small numbers: some are trickling in with their own itineraries; others have paid up to join tour groups like the Fanatics and the Green and Gold Army, whose band of around 250 Aussies were due to touch down in the early hours of Saturday morning. That take-up is about on par with Russia 2018, but nothing like the ones before it.

Michael Edgley, the director of the Green and Gold Army tour group.

“I’ve always been saying to people that are travelling on our program this is a different World Cup,” said Michael Edgley, director of the Green and Gold Army.

“We’re in an Islamic nation, they have different laws and customs, and that will, in itself, provide a very interesting and unique experience.

“There are many, many, many fans from the region coming to this event and, in particular, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran and Tunisia all participating, their fans are coming in very big numbers – many, many more people than would have gone to the World Cup from those nations previously.

“So the Arab influence in this World Cup is going to be very, very big. And that will be a unique atmosphere.”

A word of warning to the Socceroos, then: they will be significantly outnumbered in the stands in their second Group D match against Tunisia next Saturday night.

As the Herald can confirm after five days of judicious research, it is actually possible to drink alcohol in Qatar. In fact, it’s pretty easy. You just have to know where to look. Most international hotels have fully stocked bars, but they are hidden away from public view, and the entrance to them is similar to that of a nightclub back home, with an ID-checking doorman stood in front of a little nook that gives away nothing of the debauchery unfolding inside.

Doha’s metro system is already bursting at the seams, and the games haven’t even started yet.Credit:Getty

It’s certainly not cheap: I paid 45 riyals ($18) for a pint of Heineken at one such establishment, which is about on par with Australian airport prices but not as bad as what some might have you believe.

The problem is they will all be packed out very soon. Expect long queues to get in and lengthy waits for service, including at the few designated fan zones that are the only other places to buy a beer. Doha, population 2,328,000, is about to swell in size dramatically, and the implications are already starting to show.

The city’s $53 billion metro system felt like it was bursting at the seams, and the games haven’t even started yet. Carriages were jam-packed as crowds pushed and shoved to get on. Escalators were broken. Nearby roads were clogged with cars.

There are some obvious pluses to having the World Cup squeezed into a region the size of Adelaide instead of spread across a bigger country: fans can go to multiple matches in a day without having to fly anywhere. But these are the minuses, and it will surely only get worse in the coming days.

“The city is very, very crowded,” Edgley said.

“The infrastructure of the city is stretched, whether that’s mass transport systems, the available inventory for private transfers, right through to restaurants, food and beverage outlets. People looking to have a drink, there’s limited venues for those, so they’re very busy.

“There’s pros and cons, but the World Cup is the World Cup. It is the biggest and best sporting event in the world.”

Despite 12 years of rightful concerns, controversy and corruption allegations, it’s here now, and what will be will be.

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