DOHA, Qatar – As referee Daniele Orsato sounded the final whistle on Sunday for Qatar’s 2-0 defeat in the 2022 World Cup opener, the entire visual palette of Al-Bayt Stadium had changed.
What was once a prominent patch of Ecuadorian yellow, a band of burgundy from the section of ultras supporting Qatar and an unmistakable preponderance of black (for women) and white (for men) in traditional dress had been transformed. The yellow was still there and the burgundy had thinned out but now there were huge flecks of pale red – the color of empty seats at the Al-Bayt.
Much more than a third of the advertised 67,372 spectators are unlikely to remain and, indeed, you could see the home fans withdraw as soon as a first half ended, which saw Qatar lose two goals.
– Report: Qatar 0-2 Ecuador | World Cup schedule and features
It’s my seventh World Cup, and only once have I seen so many home fans leave a stadium early. It was eight years ago in Belo Horizonte when Brazil faced Germany in the World Cup semi-finals and lost 5-0 at half-time. But it was the Mineirazo (rough translation: “the agony of the Mineirão”, the stadium where the game was played) – it was the day of ultimate shame for the Seleção, an imponderable journey into the twilight zone of football as Brazil lost 7-1.
This walkout in Doha was different. It was Qatar’s first-ever World Cup game. And, while they weren’t playing well, they were two goals down against Ecuador, not a power, which offered hope for the second half. And, of course, even though they were close to becoming the first host nation in World Cup history to lose the opening match (even though they couldn’t have known that at the time) , Qatar still had – and has – two more chances against Senegal and the Netherlands.
Qatar’s journey to the World Cup has been meticulous, expensive and, let’s face it, Machiavellian. They won the bid under questionable circumstances in 2010, they built a world-class training facility (the Aspire Academy) and filled it with the best youth coaches money could buy as well as kids gifted people from all over the world (who could, one day, be naturalized by residence).
They have spent over $220 billion on this World Cup, more than double the previous eight World Cups combined. They built stadiums and hotels and a brand new airport. They have funded a national professional league with superstar coaches and players, from Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez to Colombian star James Rodriguez.
And yet, that night, Qatar failed in the one area it simply could not control.
No, I’m not talking about performance on the pitch. Ecuador was significantly better, but that was no surprise. Other than an appearance in the Gold Cup, this Qatar side haven’t played in any official competition (unless you count the Arab Cup, and you probably shouldn’t) since winning the Asian Cup in 2019. C is very long in football. Ecuador, apart from having better players, went through the bitter war of attrition otherwise known as CONMEBOL qualification.
I am talking more about the local supporters. The people who, you know, would be the ones who actually cared and were passionate about supporting their team – the team their country had invested so much in. At the first road accident, however, many – not all, by any stretch, but a significant amount – disappeared.
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Cultural differences? No real fans? Random Qataris who came out of curiosity rather than a real passion for their team? It’s hard to say. And, to be clear, many stayed until the end. But those empty seats, frankly, will feel like a kick in the (crown) family jewels.
Why go through all this – all it took to get a World Cup, all the effort – if not for national pride? Why do your fans come out long before the game is over?
This contradicts the message Qatar has often told us that Qatar is a football-loving nation full of passionate fans of the sport. That’s what they said in 2010 when they bid to host the World Cup, and we’ve heard it since.
It’s also a reminder that, yes, this is a small country with an indigenous population of 150,000, counting the elderly and toddlers. And it is probably already a feat to bring a fifth of this population into a stadium like Al-Bayt. Expecting them to stick around for a loss as well might have been asking too much. And it’s a bit depressing.
Money and an Emir determined to organize and participate in a World Cup can earn you a lot. What he can’t buy you is 90 minutes of committed support for your national team from your people. Not when that population is itself rich and privileged – Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world, and if they don’t like what they see, they will vote with their feet. And no one can stop them.