Khalifa Dreams – a short story from Qatar.
In the summer of 2001 I boarded a near-empty Qatar Airways flight to Doha. Reuniting with my family who’d recently moved there for my father’s new job, it was my first time living abroad.
It was another boiling hot afternoon. Ducking out of a taxi into the insane heat, I made the short dash over to City Center, Doha’s premier shopping mall. My destination was the fifth floor, where an iced latte awaited me in my favourite café. I was sitting with the drink in my hand reading a magazine when a voice called across from a nearby table. ‘‘Hello friend, you are soccer fan?’’
Looking up, I saw two Qatari men dressed in traditional, white, ankle-length robes. Their red and white headdresses fluttering in the overzealous breeze of a nearby fan. Momentarily confused, it took me a few seconds to realise the man had been referring to the blue and white hoops of my Q.P.R. shirt.
Smiling, I confirmed that I was indeed an avid follower of the beautiful game. This revelation saw the two men swiftly transfer the contents of their table to mine! ‘‘You know… Qatar now play qualify for World Cup. For South Korea, Japan” said the taller of the two. ”You should follow them!’’ he grinned as I sat there admiring his amazing beard that ran down to the middle of his chest.
‘‘No you shouldn’t’’ said the other flatly, giving his friend an admonishing look. ‘‘Waste of time, Qatar very bad. My friend loves to dream’’.
‘‘Hey! Allah give me brain, I will dream. Allah give me heart I will dream. I love my country!’’
We chatted for a bit and I learned that Qatar had been placed in qualifying Group B alongside Oman, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates and group favourites China. Sadly though, the Qatari campaign had already hit rocky waters after just two games. An uninspiring 0-0 home draw to Oman on August the 16th had been followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Uzbekistan ten days later. That evening, surfing the internet at home, I discovered that Qatar’s next home game placed them head to head with China on the 7th of September.
In the meantime I was excited by the arrival of Scott, a school friend who’d come to Doha to teach English at a local college. An avid Watford fan and all round football nut, Scott was immediately on board with the idea of going to see Qatar play China. A few days later we were hugely encouraged when the Qataris pulled off a surprise 2-1 away win in the U.A.E! Suddenly, their cause wasn’t looking as hopeless as I’d first feared and it certainly added a bit more tension to the upcoming China match.
And so it was that on Friday the 7th of September 2001 we took a taxi to Khalifa International Stadium, a multi-purpose twenty thousand capacity venue named after former Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Muhammed Al Thani. Mercifully, the authorities had decided to use just one of his names for the stadium.
Khalifa Stadium was still four years away from its massive extension and renovation. As a result, the stadium Scott and I visited was unrecognisable from the sparkling venue of today. Actually, the entire place was run down with the air of a struggling English League two side. A kind of oversized Hartlepool if you will, with armed guards and a running track.
Khalifa Dreams, a short story from Qatar.
There was no issue simply buying tickets on the night. So we paid our dues and joined the streams of locals filing through the turnstiles. Within a few minutes we found ourselves stationed in the home stand, right in the heart of a large mass of chanting locals. They cheered, punched the air, stamped their feet, blared horns and swished flags. What Khalifa Stadium lacked in facilities, it certainly made up for in atmosphere!
There could have been no more than five thousand people that evening, with the away end absolutely deserted, not a Chinaman in sight. Our presence among the locals drew much attention, with dozens of people keen to chat and pose for pictures. One excitable teenager even dragged us into a group shot, draping Qatar’s maroon and white national flag over our shoulders for good measure. “You LOVE Qatar!!!” he screamed.
The game itself was passionately played, but low on quality. The aforementioned Hartlepool would have probably dispatched both teams with ease. The match finished 1-1, a decent result for Qatar on paper but one they’d really needed to win to keep their qualification hopes alive.
When the home team scored there was an almighty roar from the crowd. It was a thrilling cauldron of emotion, with the teenage fans proving especially manic. I can still visualise the aftermath of that goal, a slow motion blur of frenetic dance moves and high pitched squeals. By the time the referee blew his whistle for full time, Scott and I were hooked and already speculating on the forthcoming home match against Uzbekistan.
A few weeks later a rampant Qatar brushed aside Oman in Muscat with a 3-0 win! Performing way above expectations, the mood in Doha was one of quiet pride. Unfortunately for Qatar however, China and the U.A.E’s solid form kept them stuck firmly behind the group leaders. This meant that Qatar had to beat Uzbekistan in their next game or their qualification hopes would be over with two matches still to play. With the anticipation reaching fever pitch, Scott and I were both in attendance as the two teams took to the field on the 28th of September.
Khalifa Dreams, a short story from Qatar.
Welcomed back with open arms, we took our places among the home faithful in anticipation. And what a highly entertaining, end to end game it was! Finally, the game ended 2-2, a result that saw both Qatar and Uzbekistan eliminated. Hence both teams collapsed onto the grass at the full time whistle in a miserable concoction of exhaustion and heartbreak.
The Qatari players were clearly gutted. But the fans actually seemed to take failure in their stride, heading for the exits with wry smiles and shrugged shoulders. After all, they hadn’t expected their beloved team to get through and had therefore appreciated the players’ efforts in coming close.
Qatar’s early elimination totally deflated the team, killing off the confidence and morale they’d built up in the early games. And so they proceeded to fold completely, losing their final two fixtures to the U.A.E. and China. Despite the futility of their final home match, Scott and I still showed up and cheered them on. At the end, I even got a few hugs from the locals.
Some weeks later I bumped into the two Qatari men from the mall, same cafe, same tables. Excitedly telling them how I’d gone to three home games, Mr. Long Beard was visibly delighted by the whole tale. ‘‘Wonderful! … wonderful!’’ he said, massaging a bracelet of wooden beads in his giant hand. ‘‘God bless you!’’.
His friend however clearly hadn’t developed any positivity since our last meeting. All he could do was nudge his associate gently in the ribs with an impatient tut. ‘‘But what do they do? Nothing!! Donkeys!!! I say it before, I say it now again, waste of time!’’ He took a long gulp of his coffee, shook his newspaper up over his eyes and growled. ‘‘Waste of time’’.
‘‘Ah, he always like this’’ said Long Beard, with a resigned shake of the head. ‘‘But there is always next time. We must never lose our dreams’’.
‘Khalifa Dreams’ is the second chapter of my short story series The Qatar Collection.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.