A couple of years ago, if you’d asked any football (or soccer - take your pick) fan to list 50 countries most likely to host a World Cup in the next 20 years, it’s probably safe to say that very few of them would have considered the gulf state of Qatar. So, when FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that Qatar would host the 2022 tournament, it was only the supremely confident Qataris who weren’t really that shocked.
The capital city Doha exploded in a spontaneous city-wide celebration that lasted for two days. Traffic ground to a halt as locals took to the streets in their cars and SUVs, standing on rooftops and waving massive Qatari flags. Hastily spraypainted messages on the sides of the vehicles declared love for Qatar at the expense of pricey bodywork, and more than a few engines were damaged irreparably by the deafening symphony of revving and backfiring.
For Qataris, winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup was about so much more than football: it was the moment that their nation arrived on the world stage. But their joy was not just due to national pride; football is by far the biggest sport in the country and Qataris certainly love their football.
The recently-renamed Qatar Stars League (QSL) has been the nation’s top-level domestic competition for around 50 years and currently boasts 12 first-division teams. The current champions, Lekhwiya, have existed as a football club since 1938. If you happen to be visiting Qatar during football season, a super cheap ticket to a QSL match can be an excellent investment.
While there isn’t quite the live sport-watching culture in Qatar that exists in a lot of other countries, a Qatari football match is a unique experience. Attendances at home-and-away fixtures are usually, to put it kindly, very modest, and there are none of the extras that you might expect at a sporting event like jumbo TV screens and half-time entertainment, but live football in Qatar is football in the raw.
Watching it live
The temptation when attending a game is to choose an international fixture at the biggest and best venue: Khalifa International Stadium, host of the recent Asian Cup grand final between Australia and Japan. Of all the existing stadiums in Qatar, only this architecturally-impressive structure will be used for the 2022 World Cup. It’s large and modern, and boasts a great atmosphere when full, but international matches are scarce.
For this reason, most people will need to head to a QSL game at a smaller suburban ground to get a football fix while in Qatar. Most of the grounds are similar to each other, in that they are not very big, not very modern, and not particularly attractive, but two of the best are Al Sadd and Qatar SC Stadium.
Al Sadd, by design or by accident, has acoustics that amplify any crowd noise - sometimes alarmingly - and seats that make you feel like you’re sitting on the field. The open air Qatar SC Stadium is a bit larger and can be less atmospheric, but there’s something pretty special about sitting there in the warm evening air as dusk envelops the desert and nearby skyscrapers reflect the setting sun.
Watching in comfort
If, like the majority of Qataris, you would prefer to watch your football on the television, a great way to do it in style is to head with them to Souq Waqif and surround yourself with comfortable cushions, a meal, tea and perhaps a shisha. On most weeknights during the football season, nearly all cafés and restaurants in the souq will have a TV or (more likely) a projector tuned to the game, watched by a lively and fun group of locals and expats. Even if the Arabic commentary means nothing to you, align yourself with the team supported by the other patrons and cheer along.
Information about the QSL and occasional international fixtures is available on the League’s website but it also pays to keep an eye on the local English-language newspapers such as The Peninsula or the Qatar Tribune for the most up-to-date details. Buy QSL tickets at the venue; follow instructions in promotional materials for internationals.