If one wanted to get a glimpse of what it would be like in Qatar in 2022, when they host the FIFA World Cup, all they had to do was come to Doha almost 11 years earlier, for the AFC Asian Cup, last January.
The city was painted from top to bottom with colours representing the visiting teams and pictures of the five Jerboa mascots (a rodent found in the deserts of Qatar) – Zkriti, Tranaa, Freha, Saboog and Tmbki – adorned places ranging from shop windows to pillars and posts throughout the country.
Although the competition began on a slow note, it gathered steam once regional sides took to the field. Games featuring GCC countries had loads of spectators while most of the home team’s matches were sold-outs. However, with the exception of Qatar, none of the other Gulf sides got past the first stage.
Gulf champions Kuwait could not repeat the great form in Qatar while the UAE, filled with stars of the future, came away with a single point. Bahrain, in a strong group along with Australia and South Korea, failed to progress despite blanking minnows India 5-2. Lastly, Saudi Arabia bowed out without winning a single game. It was their worst-ever performance at the continental event and it led to two coaches being fired in seven days.
Although many feared there would be a general loss of interest among spectators after the Gulf teams’ exit, it was not to be. Teams like Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, South Korea and Japan pulled in fans by the busloads. And when Japan defeated Australia (1-0) in a thriller, to lift the 15th edition of the Asian Cup, it was a fitting end to a tournament well organised.
But the competition was not without its own faults. After an almost flawless show until the end, the organisers messed up big time in the final when they gave free entry to several spectators without proper ticketing. It left hundreds of genuine fans, with proper tickets, stranded outside the stadium. They also failed to reach an agreement regarding official merchandise, which was very conspicuous by its absence.
However, despite these setbacks, it was overall a well-run tournament. It also gave definitive answers to all doubters about the country’s capability to host competitions of such magnitude.
– Taita S