What did this week’s match between Spain and Uruguay tell us about Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup?
Having my parents in town has given Family Little City an excuse to try a number of new things this week.
Cunning timing (by which I mean, ‘complete fluke’) meant that they would be here for the international football friendly between Spain and Uruguay, so I booked a couple of tickets for me and my dad, and looked forward to my first visit to the simmering cauldron of politeness that is Khalifa Stadium.
Flogging tickets to meaningless friendlies is never easy, but with hundreds of football mad nations represented amongst Doha’s population, a “Battle of the Champions” between the champions of Europe + the world and their South American counterparts must have been one of the easier assignments for the QFA’s marketing agency.
(As an added bonus, the ubiquitous advertising kept taking me straight back to the many happy hours I spent as a kid watching Battle of the Planets.)
This isn’t a match report. It was as lively a friendly as you could hope for. Spain won 3-1, no one got injured (the players’ main aim), the first half was better than the second (when the substitute merry-go-round kicked in to full effect) and as a neutral, watching players like Puyol, Iniesta, Fabregas, Mata and Busquets live is always going to leave you slack-jawed with joy as they ping the ball around to each other like the opposition isn’t there.
Instead, I wondered what pointers the match might give to Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. After all, the Qatar Football Association paid $4m to relocate the game from Portugal with a view to using it to showcase the country’s preparations.
So it’s by those criteria that it should be judged, and I found it lacking in a few key areas including ticketing, stewarding and crowd flow / queue management.
On the plus side, I saw nothing that can’t be fixed. There is, after all, plenty of time until 2022. And the organisers will learn from the World Cups in Brazil next summer and Russia in 2018.
But what they urgently need to do is spend a lot more time at major European league / cup games to spend time in crowds, entering stadia with ticket holders, not via the VIP entrance, being jostled, following signage to try and find their seats, the whole experience – and then return and transfer that knowledge.
Because the inadequacies in crowd control and ticketing on Wednesday night didn’t fill me with confidence.
A large chunk of any sporting crowd will always enter the stadium late – especially when, as here, there’s nothing else to do once inside.
Add to this the ‘Doha factor’ of people who turn up late for everything, and you have an entirely predictable problem waiting to happen – which it duly did.
There are going to be conflicting experiences at any event with a 40,000+ crowd. In general, however, judging from the reports in the local media and on Twitter, it seems that if you got there early (ie before 8pm) you were fine and waltzed right in. What you then did for an hour in a half-empty stadium is another matter.
I’m lucky enough to live close enough to the stadium to walk there. For a few glorious minutes, as thousands of fans streamed on foot towards Khalifa’s orange wedge lighting rig, Doha felt like a different city; one where the balance between car and pedestrian was more like…well, every other city on earth.
But anyone arriving, like us, after 8pm was in for epic queues, tickets for non-existent gates, security checks, duplicate bookings and a few reports of fans with prepaid tickets being turned away because the stadium was “full” and other reports of fans with no tickets being allowed in to ‘ease congestion’.
I’ve never spent more than 30 minutes queuing to get into a sports stadium, but that was our experience this week as we waited to enter Khalifa via Gate 3. (And that was without pushing in, which wasn’t being prevented by any of the many stewards outside the ground).
And it wasn’t just our gate. I don’t understand the need to need to wave a security wand over everyone entering the stadium. It’s never happened to me at a football match in the UK (only at the Olympics) despite the far greater risk of trouble from drink and fierce rivalries.
But it’s your party, so if you’re going to insist on doing it, have multiple security guards for each line, not just one, and do it earlier than right before the turnstile.
Also: why can’t we scan our own tickets at the turnstile? Yes, have help available if it’s needed, but all those extra seconds to hand it to someone else to scan it for you delays each fan by a little and, cumulatively, everyone by a lot.
Stewarding the fans
Inside the stadium, the stewarding was lacklustre at best.
Being a steward sounds fun, but it isn’t. Basically, it involves turning your back on the action and watching the crowd. So in this respect, there’s still a long way to go, because the two nearest groups of stewards to me, up in the gods in Bay B had zoned out – despite the fact that people couldn’t find their seats, were sitting in the wrong seats and were even, right next to me, blocking the only path to an exit by sitting on the stairs – and were more interested in watching what Fabregas was conjuring up on the pitch.
(Something bothered me about the seats, as well – and it was only when I realised that my exit was blocked that it dawned on me what it was: the bases don’t flip up, leading to very narrow gaps for fans to squeeze through to get to the end of each row. It’s a good thing the crowd were generally so passive.)
All of which meant that, in my section, fans were still arriving after half an hour. I know people like to arrive late for things here in Doha, but that’s not going to be on purpose.
So it’s lucky that the reverse also applied: fans started leaving on 80 minutes, inadvertently making the stewards’ job easier by smoothing out the flow of people. What would happen if a competitive fixture were in the balance until the final minute is anyone’s guess.
And it may have been just me, but I had regular ongoing outages on Qtel’s network throughout the evening. The local and roaming demand is going to fall on either their shoulders or Vodafone’s, so here’s a plea to Qtel to sort out your temporary events coverage. It’s not like you didn’t know there would be 40,000 fans trying to drain every last drop of data from their smartphones.
Overall, the thinking was there, but it wasn’t joined up enough.
None of this is beyond fixing. But the coordination and communication between traffic police, stadium officials, ticketing agencies, security and stewards needs to be a lot sharper.
Of course, there were loads of positives on the night as well.
The “Fan Fiesta” area was a big hit with the kids there on the night (mine were at home; a match finishing at 11pm on a school night wasn’t for them). The match had attracted lots of local support too, and anyone watching their first international will have had a great night out.
The atmosphere was far better than I had expected, particularly the Mexican wave races. If it wasn’t for the lack of dodgy pies, overpriced beer, horizontal rain and invective-flecked chants questioning the referee’s parentage, I would swear I was back in England.
Clearly the entire UAE branches of the Barca and Real Madrid supporters’ clubs had flown in for the game, and for that I thank them. And someone, in their wisdom, had let them take their drums in, so we had rhythm, chants, clapping and even a few bars of Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!
The half time ‘entertainment’ saw Carlos Puyol presented with an Oryx-on-a-plinth in honour of his 100th cap, which is a step up from free pizza for a random row and the Golden Gamble draw on offer at Reading.
And the golf buggy stretcher cart trundling onto the pitch to tend to a wounded Uruguayan was comedy gold; something which could only happen in a country where even walking 20 yards is deemed a bit much.
My dad and I headed home pleased to have seen some amazing skills and hopeful that there will be more, better, rehearsals to come.