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CUP RUNNETH OVER

BRUCE McDOUGALL reveals how an old newspaper hack survived one of the world's biggest parties.

“YOU look like Joe Biden.” I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or taken aback as the head-to-foot black clad immigration officer perused my passport photo, and then my physical appearance as she peered over the top of her desk.

“I’m not as old as Joe --- yet,” I replied, trying not to sound unfriendly.

Then she waved me through and into Qatar, kicking off a quirky couple of weeks in the tiny, rich peninsula country of deserts, beaches and ultra-modern skyscrapers bordering Saudi Arabia.

Not that long ago Qatar was a collection of rustic buildings and the centre of a pearl diving industry. Then it surprised – no, shocked – the world when it beat off all other contenders to win hosting rights for the World Cup 2022.

The Beautiful Game had come to town and Qatar’s population would swell by more than a third, the first Arab country in the Middle East to host the world’s biggest sporting event.

I have to say, that apart from a few quirks and frustrations, the Qataris put on a great show.

Just days before the opening ceremony and first match, fans learned that the host country’s rulers had decided to pull the plug on alcohol at all 64 games.

Shock, horror? Forget it. Never before in the history of football -- and probably any other game -- did so many have so much fun and with so much passion and zeal without a single drop of evil brew passing their lips.

The quirks kept coming. At the eight purpose built and architecturally magnificent Cup stadiums you could get a pint of zero alcohol Budweiser, but … wait for it … you had to be 21 or older to purchase. Coca Cola was available but don’t try ordering more than one at a time.

This was a strange scenario for Aussie sports fans used to necking more than a few schooners at big games. But in Qatar the absence of booze at the games was barely noticed. I have never seen thousands of fans as noisy and animated without consuming a single drop. These were pure football lovers – Africans, South Americans, Europeans, Asians and, of course the golden army from Oz.

Among the advantages of the alcohol ban (this was an Islamic country, after all) was never having your view blocked by “fans” making endless trips, in the time honoured Australian fashion, to and from the bar with trays of amber fluid. And that obligatory visit to the toilets in any of the Qatari stadiums was a Rolls Royce ride.

Security was tight. A long list of items was banned from the stadiums including, bizarrely, binoculars. But tens of thousands of whistles, drums and horns made it in every game creating a wall of sound so loud it’s a wonder the referees could be heard by the players.

For my football-loving mate, Bill Watt, and I there was so much going on at the games that (God forbid) we almost forgot about beer. During the Brazil v Serbia game in front of more than 80,000 at Lusail Stadium delirious Brazilian fans went so berserk when Richarlison perfectly executed a bicycle kick to put Brazil 2-0 up that two of them landed on top of us after falling from several rows above. Fortunately, no injuries.

Brazil were traditional favourites, France got through to the business end of the tournament, Asian and Middle Eastern teams impressed including the mighty Socceroos, and Argentina won it. But for mine it was the Africans on and off the field who provided much of the colour.

The spectator support mustered by the likes of Morocco, Tunisia (see video above) and Senegal on the trains, at the stations, on the buses and at the grounds was a sight to behold. Bill, who has watched a lot of football, was stunned by the level of passion displayed by Tunisia in an early match against Denmark. A sliding tackle on one of the Danish players in the opening minutes was followed by an astonishing bout of chest beating by the Tunisian No 10, Tarzan-style. Never seen anything quite like it.

And so the tone was set for a tournament some critics had questioned the Qataris’ right and ability to stage. Yet the organisation, the Metro train system, buses and crowd control held up in a monumental effort. And the passion and skills on the field and the exuberance of the crowds never let up all the way to the dramatic final.

There were glitches, imperfections and frustrations, of course. But I prefer to remember the people, like the driver on our trip to the desert who refused to take a tip. And the food, the glorious array of restaurants at World Cup ground zero, Souq Waqif. Among our favourites was Georgian nosherie Al Terrace where we chowed down on khachapuri – a fabulous traditional dish of cheese-filled leavened bread filled in the centre with an egg -- and giant sausages on another level.

Okay, they might have been directionally challenged at times, or hampered by language issues, but the friendliness and commitment to task of the police, officials and workers who manned the barricades all night for a month was impressive.

Having the World Cup in one spot __ as opposed to different cities requiring flights -- proved a master stroke. Around the clock Souq Waqif hosted a smorgasbord of fans, cultures, entertainment and colour.

In two weeks, apart from the feast of football, we travelled into the Qatari desert, rode camels, dune-bashed in four-wheel drive vehicles, played night golf by floodlight, toured cultural centres, visited museums and mosques and slept on the world’s newest cruise liner, the MSC World Europa.

But our Qatar experience maybe could be summed up by an incident in the early hours of the morning when we were directed the wrong way back to our ship accommodation after attending the Opening Ceremony and first game - Qatar v Ecuador.

Tired and foot sore walking along an unfamiliar Doha highway we came across a group of young police at a road block. They gave us chairs to take the weight and bottles of water before one of the officers flagged down a passing bus and ordered it to take us home.

Now that’s what I call service.

Thanks to the World of Discoveries team for organising our grand World Cup adventure to Qatar 2022. https://wofdi.com

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