By Coen Lammers in Doha
The footballers from Saudi Arabia – and to a lesser extent Tunisia and Morocco – have given the Fifa World Cup and the Arab world a much needed jolt of genuine football fever.
After the abysmal failure of the Qatar home team in the opening match and 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, the overpriced hotels and the FIFA Fan Fest with fans busing between bubbles and little football-related buzz pouring into the streets like other major football events.
All that changed when Salem Al-Dawsari smashed home a stunning winner against Argentina to create arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history.
Never mind that Saudi Arabia has until recently been engaged in a Cold War with Qatar and enforced a four-year blockade of the peninsula over their ties with 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, the green Saudi flags were everywhere hanging from cars, not unlike the Samoan flags around New Zealand after their famous rugby league victory over England.
In the Saudi shadow, an unheralded Tunisian team battled out a hard-earned draw with the classy Danes, before Morocco earlier got the same result against Croatia, the 2018 finalists, to add the cherry on top of the Arab cake.
Similar to the South African fans uniting behind the successful Ghana team in the 2010 World Cup, the Qatari and other Arab workers now have something to cheer about.
Good results in the opening matches keep the Arab play-off hopes and local interest alive to create some much-needed Arab excitement and possibly replicate Russia’s fairy tale World Cup run four years ago.
Few in the football world will argue that awarding the World Cup to a country in the Arabian Gulf with no football history was a mistake, even according to former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter, the man presiding over this decision.
Aside from the well-documented issues around human rights for workers, the LGBTQ community and women in this country, the football-related considerations around Qatar’s size, population, extreme weather and lack of football passion should have been enough to select a country with real football pedigree.
Twelve years later, however, the next generation of Fifa administrators are trying to make the best of this historical brain explosion, so they can leave their Doha headaches behind them. Boycotting Qatar or trying to get out of their commitment was simply never an option with Qatar investing over $300 billion into this tournament and the legal battles may have bankrupted the sport for generations.
Fifa may have avoided financial ruin, but critics argue the world football body has instead been morally bankrupt, by not making a tougher stand against Qatari pressure, which indirectly may undermine current and future Fifa campaigns around inclusion and human rights.
The core challenge that Fifa officials have been grappling with is that the Qataris just don’t care if Fifa or anyone else approves or likes them. They clearly want to show off their wealth and their glittering football toy, with eight spectacular stadiums, state-of-the art infrastructure and uber-efficient transport systems, but don’t seem particularly interested in pleasing the outside world, or even pretending to so.
There is a lot to admire about the 2022 World Cup, where fans move around quickly on the never-ending line of trains and buses to fantastic venues, as well as new digital technology which delivers tickets to your phone just when you step up to the stadium gate, to avoid scalping. There was a lot of concern among fans and organizers if the technology would cope with the huge number of fans, but so far it has worked well. Fingers crossed the wifi won’t crash with tens of thousands queuing up.
The Qatari gas funds have created impressive facilities and gadgets, but you have to wonder how much the locals are actually interested in football, judging by the big gaps in the officially sold-out stadiums. According to the organizers, most tickets where snapped up by Qataris, at a fraction of the price international fans had to pay, but that open invitation for many locals is clearly still not enough to get in their cars and drive to the stadium.
Hopefully the Arab successes may get a few more locals with match tickets excited about the tournament.
The 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 to find other groups to hang out with, but the traditional tournament scenes of squares, parks or beer gardens packed with singing football fans are missing.
Those willing to pay a small fortune for a beer, pile into the few overpriced bars at the Marriot or Crown Plaza to talk football with fans from other nations, or practice their chants.
The traditional hordes of Dutch, Danish, German and English fans are visibly missing from the streets and stadiums, as many Europeans opted to give the controversial host country a miss.
That void is now filled by tens of thousands of Moroccans and Tunisians, who are showing their Arab cousins in the Gulf how you rock a stadium and support your 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 chase 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 also claim the spotlight on the field.
* Coen Lammers is attending the Fifa World Cup in Qatar for Radio New Zealand. Qatar will be the sixth Fifa World Cup he has covered.