The dream of attending a FIFA world cup has been lifelong, given that I grew up like millions in Nigeria, loving football, playing it, and in my specific case hoping to one day encounter Brazil’s samba and dance at the mundial.
The possibility of attending Qatar 2022 crystalized in my head when an older friend Tunde Akintobi, a three times FIFA world cup attendee suggested it in late 2021. I jumped at the chance immediately alongside four other close friends. In the 1st week of February 2022, we all set our alarms to wake up at 2:00 am MST in Calgary, Alberta to wait for about an hour on FIFA ticket portal, to bid for match tickets. We agreed prior to joining the virtual queue to bid for the quarter-finals, semi-finals & final match tickets, and that was exactly what we did.
On March 8th we were each allocated the same matches 57, 59 & 61 tickets, to pay for within a few hours, but no matches 56, 58, 62 and 64☹. It was a bit disappointing, but I understood the ticket algorithm was trying to ensure equitable distribution world-wide, including for the ubiquitous ticket racketeers☹
After securing match tickets, we processed Hayya cards as world cup entry visas, booked our flights, and a FIFA apartment for 4 persons. It was now time to wait for the world cup proper to start in November 2022.
- Advertisement -
Despite the negative press it attracted in some parts of the world, I was super excited to be going to my first world cup. Nigeria – my country of birth not qualifying was a downer. However, having Canada my adopted country participating for the first time in 36 years, with a young promising team made it extra special, even though I knew we were drawn in a tough group with Belgium, Croatia and Morocco and that Canada will likely be out when I got on the ground in Doha.
When the World Cup commenced in November with the traditional opening ceremony, the unmistakable Arab cultural and Islamic infusions symbolized a novelty in world cup beauty and appeal, making this instantly one-of-a-kind world cup experience, even on TV. The opening ceremony conversation on tolerance and understanding of our human diversity, between the iconic Qatari youth Ghanim Al Muftah and the famous Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman completely melted my heart and I could no longer wait for my departure date to Doha.
As I left the polar vortex (coldpocalypse) behind in Calgary on December 8th flying via Dallas and London to Doha, I could not have been happier. I even got lucky to meet up in London, UK with about 10 persons (family and friends) I hadn’t seen in years, taking advantage of a 10-hour layover and the adroitness of WhatsApp planning.
I eventually landed at 7:05 am Doha time December 9th, my first time in the middle East to behold the beautiful Hamad International Airport decked out completely in amazing Qatar 2022 World Cup swags, signs, and lights. The welcome feeling was immediate from all the courteous airport personnel and officials.
As I rode an airport taxi to the old airport apartment we booked for a part of my stay, the next thing that hit me were the gorgeous weather, the beauty and splendour of Doha with its fine layout, coastal beauty, well built, accessorized roads, bridges, and highways. Checking in to our apartment was made a breeze by the mainly Southeast Asian and African staff serving the building. They were ever so professional, courteous, and eager to please guests.
A few hours after, my Egbons – Kunle Ogunwomoju and Tope Esan both arrived and checked in smoothly also. Around 3 pm, we had all bathed and changed into shorts and t-shirts ready for the two quarter final games later at night, the first between Brazil & Croatia, and then Argentina & Holland at the iconic Lusail stadium that we had tickets for. We agreed to watch Brazil vs Croatia at the Fan zone outside the Lusail Stadium, to make transiting into the stadium for our ticket game easy.
Prior to visiting Lusail, we were driven to Oriental Pearl Restaurant, an upscale middle eastern cuisine serving restaurant at Al Corniche, by Dotun a long-time friend to Tope from their time as Expats in the Hague. After a sumptuous meal, Dotun who works and lives in Doha as one of the many Expats applying themselves in Qatar’s huge hydrocarbon industry drove us to Lusail Stadium.
As we stepped out of Oriental, I quickly found out that like North American winter, it gets dark quite early during winter in the middle east, and that nighttime when the lights come on is when the beauty of Doha is accentuated.
Outside Lusail Stadium we encountered our first mass of world cup fans swarming in from different directions, resplendent in colorful jerseys, flags, and mufflers of Brazil, Croatia, Argentina, and Holland. The long walk to the Fanzone was enjoyable with so many happy faces swarming around us, a magnificent lit up sculpture of the whale shark hung up along the way, glowing lights everywhere and melodious Arabic music blasting on mega speakers.
My world cup adventure almost got ruined with the first match I watched in Doha. Against Brazil, Croatia played a very cagey, tight game that the former found difficult to break down in regular time. With 8 minutes to the end of extra time, and in one moment of sublime Brazilian magic, Neymar weaved his way past the Croatian defense and Dominik Livakovic the goalkeeper to score a truly glorious goal. The euphoria was sadly short-lived when Brazil’s defense that had been stellar up to that point, carelessly allowed the Croats back in with only 5 minutes left. I could not take the tension anymore, so I walked away at the final whistle with penalty kicks commencing. But there was no escaping it, due to several people watching on their phones and screaming the outcomes as I walked away.
One of the several goodies that the Qataris provided to every world cup fan who wanted it, was free SIM card with unlimited local calling and free data to a certain limit.
After Brazil’s elimination, I met up with my Egbons at a designated meeting spot and despondently walked with them into the magnificent arena of Lusail for Argentina vs Holland, for a thrilling game of football that lifted my mood again. In that match, I encountered what I call the Messi charm, something I don’t believe is quite as evident when watching on TV. I know he is loved by millions world-wide, but it was still refreshing to notice that every single time he touched the ball, the whole stadium would erupt in wild chants of expectations. I noticed that he is specially idolized by Southeast Asians and middle easterners, and some people opined that it may be due to the influence of Qatar Airways being a sponsor of his past and present clubs, Barcelona & PSG.
The game ended at about 1:30 am, now going home was quite another exciting experience particularly for fans/tourists used to long walks. The Qatar World Cup crowd control technique funneled thousands of fans into different winding pools to avoid overcrowding and stampede on the way to the car parks, Metro, and taxi stations.
Along the way volunteers, some usually seated on high umpire chairs and others standing at major intersections graciously guided us with the catch phase of the Qatar 2022 World Cup; Metro this way!!!
The phrase was always so soothing and hilarious at least for me and most fans I encountered because many took joy repeating it in symphony to themselves and friends along the long walks out.
For the next match day, we took similar approach of going early to Al Bayt Stadium venue of the England Vs France match. When the gates opened at 7 pm, fans with tickets streamed in to enjoy the atmosphere of the fan zone ahead of the Morocco vs Portugal game (this fan zone was after security control, and right inside Al Bayt grounds)
The ground jammed with a live DJ belting out eclectic music on giant speakers, fans in different colors but with a noticeable preponderance of Arabs all sporting Moroccan jerseys and flags.
At the final whistle when Morocco won against Portugal in regular time with a man down, the grounds erupted in wild celebrations, music, and dance. It was a profound World Cup moment for the Arab world and Africa, and I joined in the spontaneous revelry, albeit still very much enjoyable without alcohol. 🤣😀
Next was the huge game between two iconic European football nations France Vs England, which made us slowly go find our different gates and seats to settle in for what also turned out to be a thriller.
The English had a great team, and they played a very good game pressing the French through much of the match except not scoring when it mattered and Harry Kane missing the second penalty that may have led to a different outcome I wanted for the English. The French proved once more that what mattered most are the chances taken, and that it’s attack only needs a few opportunities to finish any team.
Encountering English fans for the first time in a stadium was quite the experience for me. They marginally outnumbered the French in the stadium, but through songs and chants they seemed like a huge majority, particularly with England playing such a good game.
They sang many uplifting songs to cheer their team, but one I found so hilarious and captivating same time went thus.
Please don’t take me home, please don’t take me home.
I don’t want to go to work
I just want to stay here and drink your beer
There were quite a few English boys around me who sang it so clearly and in sobriety.
The inability to secure tickets allowed us to experience the energy at the main FIFA Fan festival at Al Bidda Park, a ground that could hold up to forty thousand fans. The FIFA fan festival at Al Bidda is like being in the stadium except without the players.
It was the location for multiple musical concerts that thrilled fans during the world cup, DJs from across the globe, and match day proceedings were always anchored by a suave Qatari gentleman quite adept at getting multinational audience super excited to enjoy being there and the moments. Al Bidda was packed for the Morocco game, and for some time the team showed promise like it could compete with the reigning world champion, but injuries and suspensions had weakened the team to end the whirlwind adventure for the team, and its supporters across the Arab world and Africa.
During off days between games, I used the opportunity to explore with my buddies Felix and Tope, the sights, and attractions of Doha, using very affordable Uber service plus Metro (the ultra modern Doha Metro was free for World Cup fans with Hayya card) to see places like the bustling Souq Waqif, the local market where one can get many things, including a middle eastern signature souvenir: finest jewelleries.
I particularly enjoyed the open bus day tour of the city, which allowed tourists see so many parts of the city, to take in the beauty of middle eastern architecture, fenced off private estate of Qatar’s visionary monarchy, the Marina, museum of arts and culture, magnificent mosques, international hotel brands, the beautiful Villaggio mall & Mall of Qatar, and the impressive city centre just to name a few attractions.
By far my most exciting experience after being in the stadium and the fan festival at Al Bidda Park, was going for the desert safari to ride the camel, take exhilarating drives to climb and descend steep sand dunes, sand boarding, see the Arabian inland sea touch the desert and the international desert border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Our tour drivers/guides in our party of 18 random world cup tourists split in 3 different vehicles, turned out to be 3 amazing Pakistani brothers and cousins, born and raised in Qatar who love western music, enjoy desert racing and doing exciting stunts in their special purpose Toyota Prados.
I didn’t bother at all with the 3rd place match, I chose instead to return to Souq Waqif that evening to just mingle among local traders and tourists looking to just immerse in middle eastern culture and find souvenirs as the world cup slowly wound down.
Without final match tickets, I returned with my buddy Felix to Al-Bidda Park to watch the final, the vehicular and human traffic were insane. Barricades to prevent stampede had been extended and reinforced, this meant longer walks to get to one of the many entrances. But it was all part of the world cup fun, and we ensured we got in before the venue was declared full.
The FIFA Fan Festival at Al-Bidda is among select places that Budweiser alcoholic beer can be consumed, and fans took advantage, including my friend and I before and during the match. The match as many fans, journalists and officials have since proclaimed it, turned out to be one for the ages, with Messi and Mbappe digging deep into their bags of tricks to give fans a final that some Argentinians in my hotel confessed later that it almost gave them heart attacks. I was personally happy for Messi that he got a chance finally to crown his years of football genius with world cup glory.
I left Doha on Tuesday morning without any shadow of doubt that I had just had a special lifetime experience, and that Qatar 2022 World Cup is arguably the best world cup in my lifetime. I got back home to meet the same freezing condition I had left behind, and for a whole week I was dealing seriously with Qatar withdrawal symptoms.
Peter Igure is an avid football fan, and he writes in from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.