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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Mark Jones

Inside Qatar World Cup fan park for England vs USA: Pints, music and plenty of room

The Uber driver is lost, but we're having a good chat so I don't mind that much.

He wants Portugal to win the World Cup because he's adamant that's what Cristiano Ronaldo deserves for his career, although he doesn't agree with the way things have ended for him at Manchester United. He's a better man than that, he says.

We're so engrossed in this conversation - a chat which also includes discussions on Gareth Bale, Mo Salah, Kylian Mbappe's ego, who the next best player in the world will be, migrant workers in Qatar and LGBTQ+ people in the country - that he definitely misses a turn, and I miss him missing that turn.

So by the time I've decided that this is probably close enough, wherever it is, the FIFA Fan Festival™ is a neon mirage in the distance, somewhere that can be seen and heard, but not accessed. We're on the wrong side, basically.

And so the long walk towards the Corniche begins.

It was there that I was turfed away on Sunday evening shortly before things apparently became frantic and excitement built before Qatar played Ecuador in the World Cup's opening match, when enthusiasm for this tournament was at its peak among the home supporters.

But what about now, on the day that the hosts were eliminated?

There were still plenty of fans about, and there is an ongoing theme in Qatar that everyone appears to support a country regardless of where they are from, and it was a real mix of fans draped in their various colours who were heading towards the light, beckoned by some rather questionable live music. It's not been a good trip for the ears.

Unlike last Sunday though there was no enormous police cordon, or throngs of fans trying and failing to get in.

This was an altogether calmer place as a steady stream of fans headed down to Corniche and then took a left into the first entrance to the fan park.

It was there that you were first required to show your Hayya card, the ID card that every visitor attending a World Cup event in Qatar - which is basically everyone visiting Qatar - has to show to security staff, while it's also needed to access the metro too which is free if you've got one.

Those of us with media accreditation for the tournament haven't been needing to show it though, as the fact you have that proves you've got it, but there was no leaning on any media favours here.

My Hayya was checked three more times before I reached the airport-style security - something you also go through at every game you're working on and to access the tournament's main media centre - but then finally I was in.

And so here it is, the vast sprawling area of Al Bidda Park billed as the best place to watch World Cup matches if you didn't have a ticket. And that's probably right.

When I arrived around half an hour before England's match against the USA kicked off there was a singer on stage going on about peace and love and unity - think Gianni Infantino in a dress, basically - and any suggestion that this could be a place where fans became aggressive was immediately forgotten. It was all rather tame.

Supporters of practically every nation at this tournament mixed and mingled, and laughed and joked, with Argentina fans in particular getting it from everyone at the moment following their defeat to Saudi Arabia.

But on to the real business here.

A wander towards the food and drink stalls saw the usual fare on offer, but not yet the main event.

This was an area for families to gather and sample a variety of different foods on offer from around the globe, and potentially wash that down with a pint of non-alcoholic Bud Zero for 30 Qatari Rials - £6.80.

That wasn't going to cut it though, I've been in Qatar a week and barely had a drop of the sweet nectar, and so a walk around the back of the park, past fans playing arcade games and enjoying a mini Foot Golf course took me where I wanted to go.

Maybe it is devotion to the first letter of their name, but they are masters of the queue in Qatar.

You often get sent in a direction you're not sure is the correct one but through a series of zig zags you end up right where you want to be, and you're always on the move so there's no idle standing around like you're waiting for the No.21 to Lewisham.

So just 10 minutes before England vs USA kicked off it was a straight walk, no waiting, all the way up to the vast Budweiser bar where, as is the case with all FIFA-sanctioned venues, only Visa cards are accepted for contactless payment. Because y'know, FIFA.

Cash is fine though, and for the price of 50 Qatari Rials - precisely £11.36 (I know this because I had two just to check) - one 500ml can of cold Budweiser is poured into a World Cup themed plastic cup by one of the smiling workers and handed over to you. It was a thrill, I can't lie.

There are several screens dotted around the fan park, each one vast enough to take over a pub or beer garden back home, but the main one really is a sight to behold. It is enormous, and looks like a spaceship.

Then, after a charismatic host in a traditional thobe and headdress whips up the crowd and talks to the fans, suddenly the giant screen switches from promoting various World Cup sponsors and shows the England and USA players walking out of the tunnel at the Al Bayt Stadium.

There might have been a reaction to that, but the noise of the official FIFA world feed commentary is so loud in the fan park that you can't really gauge it.

Suddenly, thousands of miles from home, the voice of Andy Townsend is booming in my ears and that is so disorientating I start to wonder what's in these £11.36 Budweisers.

Again, the noise of the anthems blaring out makes it hard to work out just how many England fans are here. You can spot the odd cluster of them, but then the same can be said for Wales fans and supporters of other teams, all taking a passing interest in this match but not exactly getting overly passionate about it.

Songs might be being sung, but they disappear into the sound of the commentary, and it can even be difficult to talk to the person next to you as it is so loud.

Everyone there seems to be enjoying the experience though, with fans of England, Wales, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Mexico - and there are a lot of Mexico fans here - all happy to mingle and chat.

A couple of Wales fans I chat to are hoping to soothe the pain of their defeat to Iran by seeing England lose to the USA, and that looks like it could be a possibility as Gareth Southgate's side start slowly to pique the interest of the casual observers.

Over in the corner of fan park, by an adidas store featuring images of Lionel Messi and Jude Bellingham on the front, fans are sitting on the floor and watching one of the smaller (although still giant) screens.

There's a loud cry of anguish there when the USA's Weston McKennie misses a glorious chance just before half-time, and the sense that these fans want another shock is real.

England fans seem agitated, although the cool customer interviewed on the big screen at half-time insists all will be well and they'll win 1-0. His US counterpart isn't so sure though, and when she bellows "USA! USA!" down the microphone it feels like the ground shakes under my feet.

Getting around the fan park is remarkably easy, but that's because it is nowhere near full.

The official Qatar World Cup website states that you can join up to 40,000 fans at the venue, but at half-time the host on stage states that there are 14,500 people here. Attendance figures have been a hot topic at this World Cup, but that seems about right.

So with open spaces everywhere it is possible to walk right to the front and stare at the giant screen, then look back and see the fans calmly sitting on the ground, transfixed by the action.

We didn't get our 'scenes' moment as England toiled, with Harry Kane's late miss leading to several groans and proving enough to send many to the exits.

Supporters I spoke to as they headed out complained about England's tactics, Gareth Southgate's failure to use Phil Foden and a perceived complacency which had crept in after the Iran result, but all enjoyed being here.

"The price of the pint is worth it for the atmosphere!" said one, and that atmosphere continued as the park stayed open until 2am local time (the game finished at midnight here).

A DJ takes over and plays a set that gets fans of all teams mingling again, and as I sip a third Bud - all in the name of research, obviously, and yep still £11.36 - fans are playfully stacking the plastic cups and knocking them over, only to immediately pick them all up again.

Because there is no litter here, anywhere. Fans pick up after themselves and you can only wonder what such a site would look like back home.

The toilets I visit on the way out aren't in the best condition, but again I've seen far worse, and I join the fans streaming out for the exit to the metro - another long, snaking queue, but a constantly moving one, all soundtracked by the pre-recorded voices of stewards singing individual songs that give you directions (some of them need to be heard to be believed).

So what was a disappointing game was at least enlivened by being somewhere that feels like the centre of this World Cup, with the fact it was essentially less than half full telling its own story.

There are of course many things wrong with the tournament being here, but you'd like this fan park if you were looking for a friendly vibe, a family feel and no possibility of being showered by a beer thrown to the skies.

They're much too expensive for that, after all.

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