By Coen Lammers in Doha
Footballers from Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent from Tunisia and Morocco, have given the FIFA World Cup and the Arab world a much-needed boost of genuine football fever.
After the abysmal failure of the home team of Qatar in the opening game and the lack of real football culture or passion in the Gulf emirate, the tournament struggled to capture the imagination of the locals.
Instead, the 2022 World Cup seemed to operate in an artificial bubble between the eight magnificent stadiums, expensive hotels and FIFA Fan Fest with fans busing through bubbles and little soccer-related hype flooding the streets like other big football events
That all changed when Salem Al-Dawsari scored a stunning game-winner against Argentina to create arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history.
Never mind that Saudi Arabia was until recently engaged in a Cold War with Qatar and imposed a four-year blockade of the peninsula over its ties to Iran and Al Jazeera’s coverage of other Arab states.
But all that seemed forgotten when their Arab cousins brought unprecedented glory to the region.
Suddenly green Saudi flags were hanging from cars everywhere, not unlike the Samoan flags around New Zealand after their famous England rugby league victory.
In the shadow of Saudi Arabia, an unannounced Tunisian side battled to a hard-earned draw with the classy Danes, before Morocco scored the same result against Croatia, the 2018 finalists, to add the icing on the Arab cake.
Like the South African fans who rallied behind Ghana’s successful 2010 World Cup team, Qataris and other Arab workers now have something to celebrate.
Strong results in early games keep Arab play-off hopes alive and local interest to create some much-needed Arab excitement and possibly replicate Russia’s World Cup fairy tale four years ago.
Few in the soccer world will argue that awarding the World Cup to an Arabian Gulf country with no soccer history was a mistake, even according to former FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, the man who presided over this decision.
In addition to well-documented human rights issues for workers, the LGBTQ community, and women in this country, soccer-related considerations about Qatar’s size, population, extreme weather, and lack of passion for soccer they should have been enough to select a country with true football genealogy.
Yet twelve years later, the next generation of FIFA administrators are trying to make the most of this historic brain explosion, so they can put the Doha headaches behind them. Boycotting Qatar or trying to back out of their commitment was simply never an option, as Qatar poured over $300 billion into this tournament and legal battles may have bankrupted the sport for generations.
FIFA may have avoided financial ruin, but critics argue that soccer’s world body has instead been morally bankrupt by failing to take a tougher stance against pressure from Qatar, which may indirectly undermine the current and future FIFA campaigns around inclusion and human rights.
The main challenge that FIFA officials have been dealing with is that the Qataris simply don’t care if FIFA or anyone else approves or likes them. They clearly want to show off their wealth and their shiny soccer toy, complete with eight spectacular stadiums, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and super-efficient transportation systems, but they don’t seem particularly interested in pandering to the outside world, or even pretending to. to do it
There’s a lot to admire about the 2022 World Cup, where fans move quickly on the endless line of trains and buses to fantastic places, as well as the new digital technology that delivers tickets to your phone right as you step outside the stadium gate. , to avoid resale. There was a lot of concern among fans and organizers as to whether the technology could cope with the large number of fans, but it has worked well so far. Fingers crossed the wifi doesn’t crash with tens of thousands lining up.
Qatar’s gas funds have created impressive facilities and gimmicks, but one has to wonder how much the locals are really interested in football, judging by the large gaps in officially sold-out stadiums. According to organizers, most of the tickets were bought by Qataris, at a fraction of the price international fans had to pay, but that open invitation for many locals is still clearly not enough to jump into their cars and drive to the stadium.
Hopefully, the Arab successes can get a few more locals with match tickets excited about the tournament.
Empty seats are a huge source of frustration for other fans who are desperate to buy more tickets, but only find the Sold Out sign on the ticketing website.
Football fans are left wandering the streets of Doha looking for other groups to hang out with, but missing are the traditional tournament scenes of squares, parks or beer gardens packed with chanting football fans.
Those willing to pay a small fortune for a beer crowd into the few overpriced bars at the Marriot or Crown Plaza to talk soccer with fans from other nations or practice their chants.
The traditional hordes of Dutch, Danish, German and English fans are conspicuously missing from the streets and stadiums as many Europeans chose to bypass the controversial host country.
That vacuum is now filled by tens of thousands of Moroccans and Tunisians, who are showing their Arab cousins in the Gulf how to rock a stadium and root for their team. And after the stunning Saudi victory, many of their fans may decide to cross the border for a friendly invasion of their regional rival to witness their team pursue more history.
The first World Cup in the Arab world was always going to be different, but few would have expected the Arab teams to claim the limelight on the pitch as well.
* Coen Lammers will attend the FIFA World Cup in Qatar for Radio New Zealand. Qatar will be the sixth FIFA World Cup he has covered.