This was always going to be a World Cup like no other, but perception and reality turn out to be two very different things in Qatar 2022.
Big tournaments like this are often preceded by a sense of hysteria, but until it starts you never really know what it’s going to be like – and if there are any fears about the tournament.
Five days into the tournament, there were some pleasant and unpleasant surprises for the visitors.Read:Miami (Fla.) vs. Providence: How to watch NCAAB online, TV channel, live stream info, game time to day
Here’s a look at what it was really like on the ground in Doha — from the football to getting around, getting a beer and the atmosphere around the games and the city.
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One of the unique selling points of a World Cup in such a small country was its proximity to stadiums, which meant fans could attend several games a day.
But there were questions about how it would work in reality, and concerns about how the city would handle the supposed influx of more than a million visions once the tournament started.
Nearly a week later, Doha seems to be doing well and while its $36 billion metro system handles a big load, Uber remains king for many Aussie travellers.
There were suggestions that rides would be hard to come by, and traffic chaotic, once the tournament started, but they’re still readily available and cheap – even a half-hour ride to one of the stadiums on the outskirts of the city can cost less than $A20.
It can get tricky around the stadiums, where road closures can mean a bit of a walk for drop-off and pick-up, but it’s still the easier option for many.
“We get Ubers everywhere – we caught a subway home from a game two nights ago and it took us an hour longer than usual,” said Warren Livingstone, founder of the Australian Fanatics.Read:Why Marquez ignored Honda’s warning over his unique gamble
Green and Gold Army director Michael Edgley said it was a similar story for his tour group of Socceroos families and fans, though puzzling transport management presented challenges for tour buses.
“There are roadblocks that aren’t publicized in advance… and a lot of them don’t make sense – I think transportation management would be one of our negative experiences so far.”
GET A BEER
That’s what most people ask when they hear you’re in Qatar: have you found a beer yet?
The tournament’s surprising decline in beer sales in the stadiums certainly made things a bit trickier, but in reality, alcohol isn’t as scarce as you might think.
Qatar has strict rules regarding alcohol, but drinks are allowed to be served in many of the city’s hotels and bars, which aren’t as busy as feared – perhaps due to fewer visitors than expected traveling.
“I was worried that restaurants and bars would get overwhelmed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” said Edgley.
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“You do have to make reservations for places that have alcohol, but it seems there are plenty of seats available and plenty of things to do, so it seems to be working well.”
Livingstone added: “That wasn’t a problem at all for our guys… the night time action was pretty strong with bars and nightclubs.”
It wasn’t just about the beers, though. The Green and Gold Army launch event was a dry event in a desert environment.
“That was a great night that just proves — you can have a good time without beer,” said Edgley.
Of course the beers are not cheap. A 500m Budweiser in the fan zone costs about $A21. Prices in hotels vary, but some are not too bad – the cheapest pint I found was around $A16 (research is part of the job, you know).
Food prices aren’t outrageous, but you’ll rack up a hefty bill eating in the venues or hotel bars every night.
But there are bargains – and sensational meals – to be had for the more adventurous and curious with, say, a substantial meal at a local Turkish restaurant nearby costing less than $A20.
Some members of the Green and Gold Army were tipped off a few nights ago by a local driver about a shawarma tent in a gas station.
“And we had the best shawarma we’ve ever eaten in our lives for seven Qatari riyals ($2.80),” Edgley said.
“If you want to find places, you just have to find the right people. I think that’s the moral of the story.
“You can eat out every night in expensive restaurants … but there is a migrant worker base here that wants to do things cheaply and there are good solutions for that market. If you tap into them, they can be very interesting, fun and rewarding.
There were startling images and reports of some conditions for accommodation for fans, but most Australian supporters and the media reportedly had a fairly pleasant experience.
The apartments are clean and a good size albeit with some odd design flaws and defects that suggest things were completed in a hurry. Think windows that don’t go anywhere, missing fixtures and appliances that either behave bizarrely, or don’t work at all – or much more dangerous problems.
“I’ve heard a few horror stories about people having to change accommodations, but only a few,” Edgley said.
“I don’t think the building code (standard) is quite like in Australia,” Livingstone added.
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CITY VIBE & STADIUM ATMOSPHERE
Away from the stadiums, the city has certainly come alive since the tournament started, although that’s not for everyone.
Two Mexican travelers we met took short trips to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait between attending matches.
“There’s just not that much to see here,” one of them said.
Australian fans are largely sticking around – especially as many pack in as much football as possible – with Doha’s National Museum, shopping malls and dune buggy tours proving to be popular activities on rest days.
Subject to utter chaos on opening night, the Fan Zone has since calmed down and fans have had no problems getting in or getting a beer and food over the past few nights.
In the stadiums it was a mixed bag in terms of atmosphere, with some unbelievable and some strikingly flat.
Both leaders of the traveling Aussie groups rated the atmosphere within the ground subpar for the Socceroos’ opener against France at Al Janoub Stadium.
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Livingstone thinks it has to do with the lack of Aussies on the ground in Doha – he estimates there are only about 2,000, despite Australian government estimates of as many as 10,000 – and the beer ban at the stadium adding to the social element affected by games.
“I think this is probably the most disappointing part, compared to previous World Cups. That social interaction doesn’t seem to be there, because the stadiums don’t really stimulate that outdoor festival feeling,” he said.
“It’s not that football festival that other World Cups have been, because people get there early, they get together outside and have a few beers.”
Edgley theorizes it could be because crowds are made up of traveling expats from around the region, rather than die-hard football fans.
“There are not so many of what I would call the center of the football community, who are very important in creating atmosphere in stadiums, who are extra committed,” he said.
“I don’t think there are as many as we expected and I think that’s true across the board for all countries.
“So the atmosphere doesn’t feel as fiery or dynamic as what we’ve experienced before. It’s probably just a little bit, but it’s noticeable. “
Qatar lives up to the hype like a football addict’s dream. Four games a day, in a country smaller than the state of Connecticut, means unparalleled access to World Cup football and money making for Aussie fans.
Some members of the Green and Gold Army go to as many as 20 matches during the tournament and tickets can still be bought, especially if you’re smart to keep an eye on FIFA’s online ticket hub for when they appear.
“It was wall-to-wall football, attending two games a day was phenomenal,” added Livingstone.
“This World Cup was all about football and I think people have visited as much as possible and I think that’s what they will remember the most.”