November 25th and I wake up in Qatar ahead of a frenetic day of World Cup action where I will be watching three games, in three stadiums.
It’s a hot dry Doha morning, my tent is quickly heating up, but it’s tolerable.
I open the tent flap for the air to flow and to get a nice view of the Doha skyline across the bay. I’m getting myself together after a few hours of sleep.
French Montana held an impromptu concert last night, an extra treat for the Moroccans in attendance (as this was before their World Cup magic began.)
Packing all my luggage into my two bags, I carefully organize all that I have. This could be my last time seeing these bags for a while.
Placing essential items into my backpack, snacks, my Hayya card (your lifeline out here in Qatar), wallet, and a carefully folded jersey of Wales, Qatar, and USA.
I put on my Welsh Bucket Hat as if a soldier’s helmet, it’s time for battle. And by battle I mean checkout of my tent village, attend three matches in one day and make my flight back to the States by 4am.
Should be easy, of course it will not be. Yes, 4am is the flight, at Doha International Airport from mid-November through late December, there’s no such thing as an unusual hour of operation.
My itinerary of the day, if you noted the jerseys I packed, a Wales, Qatar, and USA shirt. Matches of the day, Wales vs Iran, Qatar vs Senegal, and USA vs England.
Quite a day and I’m eager to see some great football (I know……it’s called soccer) and hoping for good results.
First up Wales vs. Iran.
Wales vs Iran
For anyone who knows me, Wales is my heart. I’m American but as we know being American, we’re obsessed with our heritage.
I don’t have German, Italian, or Irish claim. My last name is Pugh, as this is my Welsh-rights I l claim for my ticket in the Red Wall (the Welsh fan base).
I’ve followed the Welsh Football Association for quite some years now and it’s been a roller coaster of emotions.
From qualifying for the Euros 2016, beating Belgium in the 2016 quarter-finals, to getting World Cup 2018 dreams smashed by Ireland. I am here for it all.
To begin the day’s journey, I meet some Welsh friends I’ve made at the Free Zone Fan Village this past week and we take the metro to Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Easy to know where to go, FOLLOW THE BUCKET HATS or listen for singing of the Welsh campaign’s anthem Yma o Hyd! Arriving at the stadium, immediately I realize we may be the home team on paper, but the Iranians who turned up for their relatively short flight have flipped the script.
I’m in awe of the excitement all around, the singing from the Welsh and equally the chants from the Iranians in Farsi. I stop a moment longer to gander at an Iranian lady, she’s sporting messages all over herself.
Evident this is in protest of what’s going on back home. Surreal stuff to get a close up look at that.
As I enter the Stadium, I take in every moment. It’s a fresh feeling having the first match of the day. Not as intense as a night match, but just as important nonetheless.
I get settled with my seat in the Red Wall sporting my early 1990 Christmas Tree Welsh Throwback shirt. I make small chat with the fans next to me, explain my American accent and make other banter.
As far as the match goes, a bit more action would’ve been welcomed. Wales held Iran 0-0 for a while and then floodgates opened after keeper Wayne Hennessey got a bit eager and came out of the box for a red card defense play.
Just when you thought it would be 0-0, in the last minute of stoppage time Iran broke them. And then added salt to the wound for a second one.
The whistle blows, heartache watching Bale and company give their reluctant thanks to the Red Wall. They know deep down, the chances of an early return to Cardiff looks very likely.
I take in the last moments of the ambiance. It’s all memories, win or lose. I also realize this is my last time in the Red Wall for a while (until a return to Cardiff one day) I gather myself….time for Match 2!
Qatar vs Senegal
Outside the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium I meet with my friend Ben, from Sydney, and we get a cab to the stadium to see Qatar take on Senegal.
Rushing to Al Thumama, we make it just in time for action. I adore this stadium, modeled after the traditional gahfiya hat, it is the perfect venue to see the host country play.
Heaps of Qatari fans in traditional wear, wave their maroon and white flags. The Senegalese are spread throughout the stadium and as anyone knows they are dancing the full 90 minutes and more. With my Budweiser Zero, I find myself content as ever.
I sport the white Qatar away shirt with a dash of desert attributes to get into the spirit. I’m neutral about the outcome so I just hope to see some good action.
Senegal goes up 1-0 before half from a Boulaye Dia goal and you feel the Qataris are slowly losing faith in their team for this tournament. Can they truly be the first host nation to not advance past the group stage? I think so…
After Senegal doubles the lead, Qatar finally get in their first goal of the tournament by Mohammed Muntari and the fans erupt! Time to wave those maroon and white flags again!
At the end of the match it’s a final of 3-1 and Senegal is grooving to the beat of the drums as their next match will be their ticket into the knockouts. I give my clapping respects to both Senegal and Qatar and slowly exit the stadium.
England vs USA
And now, it’s time to focus on the main event tonight, England vs USA. Distant cousins across the Atlantic.
The Crown vs. the rambunctious Colonists, if we’re still sentimental over 1776 of course. I’ve been itching quite a while to see this venue we’re at. In the most beautiful of all Qatar’s stadiums, Al Bayt Stadium.
I’ve always wanted to stay in a Bedouin tent, why not watch a soccer match in one. It’s the same venue that hosted the opening match of Qatar vs. Ecuador if needing reference.
Representing the Qatari and Arab hospitality, the Bedouin tents mean much more than what meets the eye.
This tent stadium is very north of Doha. Mixed in factors of traffic, it can be almost a 45 minute to hour drive. The recommended route is by bus provided by FIFA for the fans. On the bus, we’re mostly Americans mixed in with a few quiet English.
Under the lights it’s 10pm here at Al Bayt Stadium, everyone knows the whole world is watching. I’ve never experienced any intense feeling like this.
Americans pack one side of the stadium while the English pack the other side. I’m in awe to see a plethora of talent on the pitch, particularly the English. The Three Lions are basically just an All Star team of the English Premier League (not all of course).
It’s an interesting moment when you finally see footballers in person rather than on the television.
By the time one is reading this, I won’t have to oversell the match as we all know it ended 0-0. Still feeling like a victory, USA coming with a point against England is something to be proud of.
Again, as the final whistle blows, I take in the last moments I have of the 2022 World Cup. Then I make my way to the buses, it’s time to go home.
I leave Doha a mix of feelings, exhausted, drained, satisfied, accomplished but yet I feel like there’s more to explore and experience.
Despite most of my matches not including many goals or top highlights of the tournament, I don’t regret a thing. Every second of this tournament is part of the experience and no matter the outcome, it’s all for the memories and the love of the sport.
Thank you, Qatar, for the memories.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Icon Sportswire
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