As a Welsh fan at the World Cup I saw the best and worst of modern football
The Secret Wales Fan*
I don’t think I’ve ever drunk as much before a Wales game as ahead of our first game in dry Doha.
Not in Prague, Brussels or even Bordeaux. But then value for money wasn’t at stake in those dens of iniquity. Like many of our travelling support, we had booked to attend a pre-match party at a plush hotel, paying £79 to pre-book five pints and a curry.
That would usually have been more than enough for me, especially in a country where being drunk in public is illegal. But we arrived to find the event’s capacity had already been far exceeded, forcing us into an overflow room where only bottles of beer and tiny burgers were available. At least the rules were being applied evenly – even Elis James was in there with us.
In a response that would have made cost-conscious Cardis and Cardiff University’s own Martin Lewis proud (probably), indignant fans simply started using their drinks vouchers to order gins, rums and vodkas instead of beer.
Then hotel staff scored an own goal by marking people’s wristbands to indicate they had received food with wipe-clean markers, allowing at least one of our group to gobble up five helpings. The chaos descended into what became the most unexpected free bar of all time.
As a rule, the drunker our fans get before a game, the louder the away end is. It was a shock then, that, despite the historic occasion, an emotional rendition of the anthem and a surprising number of neutrals who had made the effort to buy Wales shirts, the atmosphere in the Wales end at the USA match was strangely flat. Something that wasn’t unnoticed by the players, with Bale twice coming over to ask us to lift the volume.
We were even quieter at the second game against Iran as the realisation set in that the performance against the US wasn’t an accident and that Ramsey and Bale weren’t going to produce another game-changing performance on a par with those against Turkey at Euro 2020 or Russia at Euro 2016.
The Barry Horns blockade and full exposure to the midday sun also played their part. Although you can hardly moan about the heat in a stadium built by low-paid workers whose lives were constantly in danger due to heat exhaustion.
The Red Wall lived up to its reputation against England, finally showing the World the defiance in the face of adversity that we had been telling everyone about ahead of the tournament. And while we might not have found our finest voice by our own standards, Wales were by far among the best supported European teams.
But it was the fans from South America, Africa and the Middle East who gave life to FIFA’s Frankenstein World Cup. It was only when I found myself queuing at the airport at 2am alongside sombrero-sporting supporters of Mexico that it hit how much bigger this was than the Euros.
The one undeniably good thing about the choice of venue was its size. The fact the whole tournament was played out in a 45 mile radius meant you only needed to catch the metro to meet fans from all over the world. And, as I later discovered, catch Covid strains from all over the world.
The proximity in which you found yourself to people you would never otherwise cross paths with was enough to start breaking down my cynicism for modern football, a large part of which FIFA’s choice of venue was responsible for in the first place.
Gathering round a mobile phone to watch the final minutes of a match with migrant workers who welcomed us to their group, getting caught up among Saudies in traditional dress celebrating their historic victory over Argentina, watching a friendly Moroccan man’s friends burst out laughing when he accidentally greeted us with “Bareth Gale”. Small but unforgettable moments of friendship that showed the real face of the world game.
Doha itself too was, I admit, more interesting than the city-sized St David’s 2 I had imagined. A short walk from the skyscrapers was the waterside Corniche boulevard which led to the traditional but recently restored Souq Waqif market and the impressive museum of Islamic art. Katara beach, with its amphitheatre, fleet of distinctive Dhow boats and stalls selling sweet Kurak tea, which became the new round of choice, was a short ride away on the state of the art metro.
It was all undeniably impressive until you realised you were at football’s version of the Truman Show. While we did meet some migrant workers in fan zones and stadiums, many more were excluded because they were too poor to buy a match ticket and therefore didn’t have the Hayya card needed to access anything to do with the tournament. Even those who did have the right credentials were denied entry or removed if they dared to show their support for human rights.
One trip on the metro was enough to pull back the curtain on Qatar’s carefully stage-managed performance. The different roles allocated to staff and volunteers depending on their origin revealed the country’s rigid and racist social hierarchy – one borrowed directly from the British empire according to my holiday reading, Inside Qatar. Overseeing them all at a distance were the Qataris, a status it is almost impossible to gain.
It was also on the walk to and from the metro everyday that I noticed an abandoned building site, the only signs of life being Simpsons-themed health and safety posters. A local shop worker whispering about workers being sent away lined up with newspaper reports of migrants being sent home or losing pay while work stopped during the World Cup.
Like many supporters in Wales and around the world, I thought long and hard about whether to go to the World Cup in Qatar. I’m pleased I went to the World Cup but I’m still not sure it should have been in Qatar.
It was the experience of a lifetime – but not one that should have ever cost lives.
*Nation.Cymru does not usually publish anonymous articles but made an exception in this case so that the author could be fully open about their experience.
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