At first we didn’t know what to expect. I’d been to four previous World Cups, the first being with my national team in Germany 2006, the last being Russia 2018 to witness the emergence of Kylian Mbappe guiding France to glory in the Final. Up to late November some of my best pals were still debating which of the two between Russia and Germany was the better. Of course from a Team experience with Leo Beenhakker, that was always going to be a once in a lifetime chapter. We heard all the pre-tournament talks about no alcohol, no partying, and restrictions from A-Z. I was fortunate to visit Doha on two previous occasions the last being for the 2019 FIFA World Club Championship. And from all accounts my stay was memorable as the place reminded me a lot of Manama, Bahrain. Miscellaneous CEO Sham Mohammed, his son Armis and myself knew that we’d be in for the ride of a lifetime.
Off the plane around 9am after fourteen hours on Qatar Airways from Miami, we got a couple hours rest and then headed to the Souq Waqif, the central point for fans from around the world who were in town for the final week of the World Cup.
“Muchachos, ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar, quiero ganar la tercera, quiero ser campeón mundial
Y al Diego, en el cielo lo podemos ver, con Don Diego y con La Tota, alentándolo a Lionel.” Those were the lyrics of Argentina’s adopted World Cup song by rock band La Mosca Tsewe which we could hear from a distance as we entered the arena as the Argentina fans made their presence felt with flags of their colours and the faces of Diego Maradona and Messi turning the venue into little Buenos Aires and Rosario. From that moment you felt this was going to be Argentina’s time.
Alcohol was available in some bars and hotels in Qatar, but there was a conspicuous lack of the kind of consumption usually seen at the world’s biggest football tournament. You didn’t miss it. It was very different, but with it came a much more pleasant, much more family-friendly atmosphere.
There was not as much late night into early morning partying in the clubs, though we did manage two nights out, and the beauty of the people, well particularly the women, was displayed a bit more conservatively And yes, we were seeing them in skirts, close-fitting pants and even shorts. The Moroccans stood you as you could probably tell from your own observations.
The unprecedentedly compact World Cup, with seven of the eight stadiums within the capital of the Gulf monarchy had transformed the fan experience compared with previous tournaments. Even the city’s new 76km light railway system became a place for fans to meet and swap stories. The condensed schedule allowed visitors to cram in numerous games in just a few days. Qatar, home to three million people has seen its population swell as the tournament begins. It spent more than $200 billion US for improvements across this energy-rich country slightly larger than Jamaica. That included a vast new underground metro system that can whisk fans from the airport to matches. It even closed schools for the month and urged residents to work from home.
All local and international fans attending World Cup matches were required to fill out a Hayya Card, a digital identification app from the Qatari government that required fans to upload a photo of their face and to scan their passport. This allowed straightforward access to the Fan Festivals, events and the stadiums. Facial recognition cameras and drone surveillance were used for crowd security purposes during the World Cup as the organizers used more than 15,000 cameras to monitor fan activity across the eight World Cup stadiums and on the streets of Doha and Lusail.
We witnessed Argentina’s win over Croatia from the Fan Festival which was another out of the world experience, way superior to previous World Cups. One of the attractions here was Visa and Crypto.com offer of digital art NFTs as part of Visa Masters of Movement, an interactive LED football pitch experience for fans in Doha. Visa auctioned five 1-of-1 NFTs of iconic World Cup goals scored by former stars Carli Lloyd (U.S), Jared Borgetti (Mexico), Tim Cahill (Australia), Michael Owen (England), and Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina).
Each unique NFT was created by London-based design agency XK Studio, which took an abstract approach to the digital artwork through an algorithm that replicated the on-field movement of each player from their World Cup goal-scoring plays, combined with using the color of their uniforms. The Visa Masters of Movement in Qatar was an on-site fan experience that included the LED pitch where fans got to wear motion capture sensor vests to track their movements.
The Fan Festival was beyond my expectations. Big Screens, FIFA Museum, massive stages, mouth-watering cuisines from different continents and people from all walks of life all in one.
Semi-Final #2 and we’re off to Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. I had a special admiration for Morocco and the way they projected themselves during the tournament but deep inside I wanted France to make their return to the final. On arrival at the venue, the walk through security passageways was as smooth as could be. The size of the venue felt like four times that of Hasely Crawford but yet accessible with a steady flow. It took us approximately 10 minutes from first entrance to seating. And believe it or not, we got front-row seats, the last row between the advertising boards and the Team benches of France and Morocco. I swear at one point Mbappe heard my plea in the second half.
The last time I had been this close to teams walking out for a World Cup encounter was South Africa 2010 during my days as a FIFA Media Officer and then I was so focused on my tasks with the start team photos that I hardly recalled what it felt like to be this close to the World Cup stars. This was category one and quite a few celebrities were within the vicinity during both the semi final and final including David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Novak Djokovic,Sean Paul,Khabib Nurmagomedov, Elon Musk,France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Bollywood’s Ananya Panday, Shanaya Kapoor, Karisma Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan.
We were close enough to catch the attention of The Mad Stuntman, the Trinidadian artiste who performed his hit “I like to Move it” during half time. I’m not certain Trinbagonians understand how huge of a deal it was to have Stuntman big up “Trinidad and Tobago” on at least three occasions during his repertoire at both semi-finals.
I could not be in Doha and not link up with our very own Shaka Hislop. He was one of the lead pundits stationed in Doha with Alexis Nunes. Not only did Shaka introduce us to the number one Arabian Oud (perfume) shop in the Souq but he also invited me to spend a night out with the ESPN crew at their studio located near Doha’s West Bay skyline. I got to observe the operations of staging a live set two nights before a World Cup final at 2am Qatar time (due to the time difference in the US), got to sit next to Shaka on the set while also having the privilege of meeting Argentina’s 1978 World Cup hero Mario Kempes who was based in Doha as an ESPN Argentina panelist.
One of the days myself and the Mohammed duo also experienced the joys of the Sealine Desert with camel rides and the crazy SUV and Buggy Drives through the Desert. One evening we took to the traditional dhow boats (sailing boats with masts typically used on the Red Sea and Indian Ocean) and got the captain to blast some Soca while we took in the views of the Doha skyline.
If you think Tokyo and Times Square can light the skies, Doha is next level. No matter how many times you walk or drive along the Corniche one is always going to be wowed by the Doha skyline.Almost every building comes alive at night thanks to built-in lighting with many displaying images of the Iconic players at Qatar 2022. Nestled amongst the West Bay skyscrapers are some brilliant landmarks and truly iconic buildings, but you can find plenty of standalone showstoppers elsewhere in town. Arguably the most recognisable building in Qatar, overlooking the Arabian Gulf, is the Burj Doha.
This trip wasalso meant to explore some business opportunities and we had the chance to not only discuss possible partnerships with Shaka but I got to touch base with my former FIFA Colleague from the FIFA 2010 World Cup, Avezbek Berdikulov, Deputy Head of competitions and football events for the Asian Football Confederation. The performances of Iran,South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan could not go unnoticed. Sham also got to see Laura Cusco Saez who was FIFA’s Infotainment Project Manager at the World Cup and has worked in the past with Beach Soccer Worldwide of which he serves as Caribbean President.
We also met up what Alex Avellanet, Uruguayan founder of Upright City a Miami-based company involved in Business development, Public and Government Relations. She has been involved in football relations with Uruguay, Argentina, US and CONCACAF. “What a great platform this is where persons from all corners of the globe including yourselves from Concacaf and Conmebol can discuss possibilities for the game where we can not only expand relationships but create new opportunities to take the game to new levels in our respective destinations,” Alex told me.
We came, We saw, We conquered! Yes, deep in my heart I wanted Leo Messi to have his crowning moment and we were privileged to have witnessed it in the flesh. Mbappe for me is the game’s future star.
The 2022 World Cup was the first global tournament where the gap between confederations was significantly closed. Both Asia and Africa stamped their brand onto the world stage. We would have liked to see more from Concacaf’s representative and here’s hoping 2026 will bring that
Following 64 matches, a record 172 goals, one of the best (and most evenly contested) finals in history, Qatar 2022 finally reached its crescendo. In many ways, the footballing gods treated us to a fairytale like no other.