World Cup buzz builds as Qatar welcomes football stars, fans

Doha, Qatar – The moment Qatar has been waiting for since 2010 is here: the 2022 FIFA World Cup is ready for kickoff.

But ahead of Sunday’s opening game, the excitement is palpable across the Gulf nation.

Fans are dancing on the streets, replica football jerseys are selling out like sugary karak (milk tea), strings of miniature flags adorn corner shops, front yards, schools and skyscrapers are draped in gigantic posters of football heroes.

“I see more and more new faces on the street every day,” Bernard Wanjiku, a shop owner from Kenya, told Al Jazeera at his Africa-focused outlet in the old, bustling neighbourhood of Mansoura.

From African clothes and accessories to beauty products, Butterfly Beauty Shop claims to have it all. The shop has undergone a mini-transformation to match the occasion. Wanjiku is now selling football flags, stickers, badges, wigs and jerseys and looks pleased with how business is doing.

“When I started selling flags, Argentina, Brazil and Qatar were the most popular countries,” he shouts over the sound of World Cup anthems blaring from his radio.

“Now there is a sudden demand for African flags and jerseys. Ghana, Senegal and Morocco are the most popular. In fact, I have almost run out of Ghana flags,” he adds holding up one of the last remaining flags of the Black Stars.

Mansoura is home to lower to middle-income communities from Africa, South Asia and the Philippines. The area has gone through a recent transformation with the introduction of a metro station, construction of new shops and residential buildings, and roadworks.

Given its central location, Mansoura is a few metro stops away from several World Cup stadiums. Stadium 974 is the closest at six kilometres away, a mere 10-minute drive or three stops on the metro.

Taxi drivers stop for a quick one-riyal cup of karak, while many of the mainly South Asian youth relax at street corners – and make World Cup predictions – after a hard day’s work. It is a vibrant, multicultural neighbourhood.

All the action in downtown Doha

Musheireb, the oldest district in the capital Doha, and home to the first fully lit street in the country, is now a sparkling clean new downtown area.

Single-storey mud houses, baqaalas (corner shops) and restaurants dating back to the 1970s once stood here. But narrow streets clogged with traffic are a thing of the past. They have been replaced with a purpose-built tram system and tall buildings that house five-star hotels and high-end restaurants.

The construction and refurbishment that began after Qatar won the hosting rights to the World Cup came to an end a few weeks ago. Last-minute fixes and paint jobs in hotels and museum buildings indicate that the finishing touches are still under way.

Fans who come to the new Musheireb Downtown area can expect to catch all the football action on big screens, delve into Qatar’s history with exhibitions and screenings about its history, cheer on the home team at al-Annabi Village – which hosts immersive experiences and exhibitions tracing Qatar’s football history, or admire the various art and culture exhibitions including Frida Kahlo Immersive Biography and Forever Valentino, a tribute to the Italian fashion house.

A less-than-kilometre walk across Musheireb takes you to Souq Waqif which has long been the central and most popular tourist hub in Doha. Now, it has turned into a 24-hour party zone teeming with fans from across the world.

Souq Waqif is a popular tourist hub in Doha [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, the vast Al-Bidda Park, which is the venue for the FIFA Fan Festival, is a 20-minute walk from the Souq, while the Corniche waterfront area is less than a kilometre to the west. Barricades and police units surrounding the park, the Souq and the Corniche are visible from a distance as the area has been pedestrianised to ease crowd movement during the World Cup.

If you look up from al-Bidda Park at night, you’ll be able to see a couple of footballers passing a ball in the sky. Next, the lights flit and flicker, writing “Welcome to Qatar”. Drone displays, fireworks and light shows are among the dozens of nighttime displays planned to enthral fans during the tournament.

On the ground, fan parades have become a common sight along the Corniche. Men, women and children of all ages and nationalities gather in large groups to dance, cheer and sing for their favourite teams – with Brazil, Argentina, Morocco, Senegal and England the most popular so far.

While these fans have been termed “fake” or “borrowed” by some international news outlets, it has done little to dampen their spirits. They love football – Messi is one standout idol – regardless of their origin.

Draped in national flags of all colours, they descend on hubs such as the main boulevard in Lusail city, home to Lusail Stadium, and march in their hundreds to the beating of drums.

Flags of the World Cup participating countries
Flags of the countries participating in the World Cup on Lusail Boulevard, on November 4, 2022, in Lusail city, Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Who are you rooting for?

“I am Qatari but I am supporting Argentina,” says Sara al-Haji, a Qatari media student. “It’s simple. I love Leo Messi and so does my mother.”

Sarah and her friends from Qatar University have set up a stall in the Katara Cultural Village, a hub that is host to art galleries, an amphitheatre, restaurants and a beach, located a 10-minute drive or metro ride from downtown Doha.

To anyone who stops by, Sarah offers Arabic coffee, biscuits, and a chance to learn more about Qatari and Islamic culture.

“We felt the need to change the image of Qatar and Islam in the eyes of the West,” adds Sara’s friend Dalal. Their small set-up includes a World Cup-themed activity corner offering team colouring sheets, stickers, badges and flags for children.

“We have had quite a few Argentinian fans stop by to try our coffee and have a chat. They made TikTok videos about Qatar and said they will root for our team.”

From fashion shows to concerts and theatre performances, to children’s activities and amusement parks there’s an event taking place in every part of the country. Schools and nurseries have marked an early end of term with World Cup parties of their own.

Children, kitted out in their favourite team’s colours have been dancing to the tournament soundtrack and holding cardboard versions of World Cup trophies aloft.

Excitement levels are rising, the festivities are in full swing and the teams are arriving. Opening day approaches – let the games begin.

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