A few meters from the entrance of Doha’s Khalifa Stadium three middle-aged English men are engaged in a verbal standoff — and it’s getting pretty tense.
“Ok then, mate, 50 pounds. That’s f***ing it,” one says to the other. “Do you want the ticket or not?”
Some things never change in football.
But within minutes of entering the sprawling stadium grounds ahead of England’s World Cup opener against Iranit’s clear this is not your usual big-tournament atmosphere, especially when the traveling English are involved.
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Not that the atmosphere is lacking. Drums beat as fans draped in flags — Iranians seem to outnumber English — cheer and toot horns. Inside the main entrance a large crowd gathers around a band of horn players, supporters of both nations dancing together. Real fans or fake, it’s pretty awesome.
But there’s definitely an edge missing. And it’s not surprising given FIFA’s stunning backflip to ban alcohol sales at stadiums just days out from the tournament.
The branding of $US75m ($A110m) sponsor Budweiser is hard to spot anywhere like Coca-Cola or plain banners surround the many stalls selling water, soft drinks and zero-alcohol beer.
There doesn’t seem to be many drinking the latter. Two English fans stroll towards the stadium with two water bottles in each hand. It is still pushing 30 degrees in the mid-afternoon sun and hydration is the name of the game.
Perhaps the most startling sight is of the former Budweiser, now-unbranded, red tents tucked away 80m from the stadium. They are open but practically unused and the adjacent area set up with tall tables for fans to congregate, is almost completely deserted half an hour out from kickoff.
Reports of some England fans running into serious issues due to FIFA’s ticketing app might partly explain it (and the scuffle out front).
But what would likely have been a pre-game social hub before Qatar and FIFA’s U-turn is now wasteland.
The fans I speak to don’t seem to be angry about the issue, or at least they’ve made peace with the decision.
“Look, I would love a beer,” says Kevin, a supporter from Manchester who is here just for this game.
“But it’s fine. The media coverage back home has been pretty negative about it all but once you’re here, it’s great.”
Mike, a traveling Chelsea fan who has been in Doha for a week, says it’s a “different kind of fun.”
“I’m loving the atmosphere, it’s actually 10 times better than I expected,” he says.
“There seems to be much more unity. In England, you don’t get near a Man City fan. Security and all that
“Here, fans dancing together, I’m surprised by that.”
Mike is one of the lucky ones in a hospitality suite where alcohol will be available.
“But if not it wouldn’t stop me from coming here,” he insists. “What, 90 minutes, two hours is not that long to go without.”
A few raucous passing fans sound like they might have come from a long lunch at a city hotel where alcohol is served, at a price. They’ll probably be back there tonight.
Inside the stadium the atmosphere is similar. The level of the England chants are drowned out by the deafening noise of Iran’s fans jeering their own anthem as their players refused to sing in a powerful moment.
When football begins England’s fans have plenty to celebrate. They scream and dance on their feet when Jude Bellingham breaks the deadlock in the 35th minute.
Another five England goals followed, along with two for an overrun Iran.
There’s been talk among fans about football being the real drug of this World Cup
If things continue like this, England’s sober fans will be fine.