BROUGHT TOGETHER BY FOOTBALL
Cheering crowds, football trivia, stilt walkers and World Cup fever all came together to deliver an unequalled match viewing experience at the Brazil 2014 Fan Zone at Katara. Ayswarya Murthy gets the lowdown.
There was no escaping football in Qatar during the World Cup. Come evening, you couldn't throw a stick without it hitting an establishment that was screening the matches. But certainly no one was complaining, considering the football hungry population and the myriad of options available for those who wanted to catch some live action – from giant screens at plush football zones in five-star hotels to the slightly slanted 32” television set at a local sheesha bar, each had its own charm. But perhaps the most novel experience of this World Cup summer in Doha was the Brazil 2014 Fan Zone that was raised up at Katara.
For several days prior to Ramadan, as the mysterious white structure was going up right opposite St Regis hotel, curiosity and excitement gripped all those who drove past it. It was common knowledge that this was related to the upcoming World Cup and could possibly accommodate hundreds of loud, cheering fans. But would this be our own Copacabana beach? Doha's version of Berlin's Living Room Stadium? Was it a herald of things to come? All these questions were answered on June 28 when the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy threw open the doors of the Fan Zone to a public that was practically straining at the leash. Watching the match at home held little appeal, restaurants and cafes were only marginally better and those who headed for one of the giant screens at Souq Waqif to bask in the shared excitement of fellow football-lovers found the heat and humidity bearing down upon them with a vengeance. Fan Zone promised an irresistible middle-ground.
We set foot in there for the first time on the day that Belgium played against the USA, the last of the Round of 16 matches. Maybe nobody expected the game to throw up much excitement (however, as it turned out, the 30-minutes of extra time was, at the point in the World Cup, one of the most intense moments of football) because the registration space at Doha Exhibition Centre looked almost forlorn. Getting your wristband for entry was a quick and painless process and we were ushered into the air-conditioned Mowasalat bus that was to ferry us ( just the two of us) to the Fan Zone, three minutes away. We'd later find out that this was not the case for the quarter finals matches onwards. Queue for registration at the DEC stretched on till the parking lot, tickets went fast and the bus ran to and fro packed to the brim. All the 400 seats that were allocated for online booking had been grabbed up within days and first come first serve was a gamble. We barely made it for the Germany vs France match, being the absolute last people to be given the wristbands, and had to watch the first half of the match on our feet, munching on some outrageously expensive hotdogs. The second half went by in relative comfort after we managed to poach some seats. Face painting, football merchandise, foosball tables and mini games dotted around the fan zone served to keep you occupied as you waited
for the kickoff. The kid's play zone also was a lifesaver as it kept the little ones from getting underfoot. Mascots and performance artists took to the stage to wow the crowd with their acrobatics and crazy costumes. All in all, the experience was anything but dull. Also keeping the spirit up were MCs like the inimitable Hamad Al Amari who pulled up unsuspecting fans to answer questions about the teams they were supporting. Wit and humour flew thick and fast from both sides. One cheeky Belgian fan was certain that they would prevail against the USA. “One of the biggest countries in the world is playing against one of the smallest,” he said. “And today we'll see that size doesn't matter.” A red-faced Al Amari, pretending to be scandalised, relieved the gentlemen of the microphone and stomped off, as the audience rolled over laughing (more at Al Amari's antics than the statement itself ). When he thought things were getting too quiet, he'd challenge opposing fans to an eight-on-eight foosball match. Two snack bars at the Fan Zone, stocked by the W Hotels, keep the crowds fed and watered. During busy days, however, they seem to be coming apart at the seams with wait times that seemed to take forever and the billing clerks accepting cash for items that had already run out (and you had to find that out after having to wait ten more minutes to reach the serving counter).
Few people who had visited the Fan Zone had anything bad to say about the experience and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy can chalk this one up as a success. The execution was perfect and smooth and a grand time was had by all. Even those who barely had any interest in football (points to self ), couldn't help but get drawn into the excitement and the spirit of things. By the end, I was screaming myself hoarse along with the rest of the fans and cursing like a sailor between running a Google search to find out exactly how long the extra time lasted. We didn't have the chance to check out the Fan Zone at Aspire but reports that reached us were largely positive about this one too. We wonder why that wasn't as heavily publicised and promoted as the Brazil 2014 Fan Zone in Katara