DOHA – After twelve games in-person in eleven days (one first round game, all second round games, and three of the four quarterfinals) at each of Qatar’s eight football stadiums, I can share that there’s a lot more going on than what is captured on TV.
Here are ten things to keep in mind when you watch Sunday’s final between Messi’s Argentina and Mbappé’s France:
- Where are the women? The transmitted live feed, primarily through the close ups of spectators, gives the impression the audience is relatively gender mixed. The reality is that women do no even make up even 10 percent of the attendees despite globally being 37% of the fan base. True to those Islamic national cultures that are more traditional like the Qatari one is, I did not see gender-mixed groups of single people. But here and there groups of hijab- and abaya-wearing women were there to cheer on their favorite teams. But their presence was not even close to the numbers of women who attend US women and men’s national team soccer matches in the US for example.
- Where are the Qataris? Though they rule the land, they only make up 12% of Qatar’s population. The rest of the population is immigrant with no pathway to citizenship. In my entire time in Qatar I did not meet one single Qatari though at the stadium they were quite visible in a reserved VIP section opposite the side of the stadium that shows up on TV screens.
- This is a truly Muslim World Cup. At the games as well as in all the restaurants, shops, and hotels, I met immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Philippines, and Sri Lanka. They were a vast majority of the spectators as well as the entirety of the shopkeepers, the clerks, the servers, and the FIFA volunteers. Attendance from Europe and the USA was down compared to previous World Cups. The combination of unfamiliarity, cultural discomfort, and bias with this part of the world reduced their numbers and, in contrast, the immense sense of pride on the part of the Arabic world of the first World Cup in a Muslim country made this a must-go event for fans representing 25% of the world’s population. In fact, Qatar 2022 recorded 2.45 million spectators and 96% stadium occupancy — the highest ever attendance in the tournament’s history.
- But how about all those Argentinian and Brazilian fans throughout the entire stadium? In the first Argentina game I attended (versus Australia), I was in the middle of a true barra brava that had flown in from Argentina. Their songs, chants, and foot stomping generated a nonstop bass line at the edge of pandemonium. But at their next game versus Holland, as I marveled at all the albiceleste jerseys everywhere in the stadium no one in the section I was in was singing. As they all instead trained their cell phones on the chanting barra brava on the other side of the stadium, it’s when I realized all those painted faces with Argentina flag colors and all those Messi jerseys were being worn by non-Argentinians from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia where Messi as well as Brazil’s Neymar have massive followings.
- The true home team. Morocco’s team made history as their airtight defense, lightning fast offense, and spirited play led them to be the first African and Muslim nation to make it as far as the semifinals. Not only were the stadiums holding at least 15,000 Moroccan fans who had came on charter flights but outside the stadiums many more thousands had arrived without tickets hoping to find a way in. In addition, as the Muslim nation getting this far, it became the home team with nearly the entire stadium cheering them on against former colonial powers Spain and Portugal which they defeated, and France which in the end they could not. Every time the opposing team had the ball the whistling to try to distract the players was deafening and did not let up the entire match.
- Before Mbappé, Allah. At the line right outside the stadium for free face painting and getting your name written in Arabic calligraphy, a man in a kandora suddenly steps away from managing the line and puts his outstretched arms in a palms up position and sings the call to prayer. Men with Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé jerseys stop whatever they have been doing, come on over take off their shoes, kneel and bow as they go through the prayer ritual. In fact, in all the stadiums on every floor, along with the expected concessions stands and restrooms, there were ample-sized prayer rooms. And then when prayers were done, it was back to “olé, olé, olé!”
- How popular really is zero alcohol beer? World Cup sponsor Budweiser got left holding the bag of their $75 million sponsorship when the Qatari government changed its mind about allowing the sale of alcohol at the stadiums. So Bud Zero was what was available. Imagine Wrigley Field without beer. What came out of this unintended experiment of the impact of alcohol on sports crowds? While the lack of egregious drunker behavior was so nice, I missed the extra buzz that 5% alcohol content stimulates. The fan cheering was passionate for sure, but it lacked just that bit of increased octane that helps reduce inhibitions for easier celebration of goals with people you have never met before. The hugs and high fives tended to be contained within groups of people who were connected to one another. For sports fans at live events this is no small thing.
- The most passionate fans. Even with zero-alcohol beer sales, this did not stop the Argentinian fans which were by far the most passionate and with the longer set of soccer chant traditions compared to the second most passionate fan base — those supporting Morocco. While the Morocco fans’ hearts were all in, their more limited soccer history meant fewer cheering tools in their fan repertoire. In contrast, the Argentinians who have generations of World Cup and Argentine league fútbol history sang the entire game, have a chant for every occasion, and they sing loudly and passionately. The broadcast on TV clearly has noise cancelling technology at play that mutes their sound and so viewers have no idea how loud and relentless the chanting and singing is.
- The “This Way” chant. Logistics overall were very good and one particularly impressive method to ensure 40,000 to 90,000 stadium goers found their way to the subway, taxi, Ubers, Careems, and their stadium seats was by deploying armies of volunteers who created cordons through which the people traffic needed to flow. And all of them using the chant: “____ this way” and pointing in the direction to move in. “Metro this way... ” “Lusail Stadium this way….”. “Al Bayt stadium this way…” “Uber this way…” “Messi this way.” And so, we made it to where we needed to get to, no problem.
- The Don’t Wear Shorts Misinformation. While modest clothing is requested by Qatari culture, the alarm in many web sites that men and women would be arrested for wearing shorts was simply not true and there were no problems. In fact, for the many traditionally dressed Muslims there were plenty in Western clothing, and yes, among the men, even shorts.
With these ten observations, as you settle in to watch the final clash of soccer titans determine the world champion, see what you can pick up that may peek through the TV producers’ editorial lenses.
Enjoy the Final!