DOHA, Qatar -- By the time referee Daniele Orsato blew the final whistle Sunday for Qatar's 2-0 loss in the 2022 World Cup opener, the whole visual palette of the Al-Bayt Stadium had changed.
What was once a sizable patch of Ecuadorian yellow, a cluster of burgundy from the ultras section supporting Qatar, and a preponderance of unmistakable black (for the women) and white (for the men) in traditional dress had been transformed. The yellow was still there, and the burgundy had thinned, but now there were huge patches of pale red -- the color of empty seats at the Al-Bayt.
It is unlikely that much more than one-third of the announced 67,372 in attendance remained and, indeed, you could see home supporters file out as early as the end of a first half which saw Qatar go two goals down.
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This is my seventh World Cup, and only once before have I seen these many home fans abandon a stadium early. That was eight years ago in Belo Horizonte, when Brazil took on Germany in a World Cup semifinal and famously fell behind 5-0 by halftime. But that was the Mineirazo (rough translation: "the agony of Mineirão," the stadium where the game was played) -- it was the ultimate day of shame for the Seleção, an imponderable trip into football's twilight zone as Brazil lost 7-1.
This walkout in Doha was different. This was Qatar's first-ever World Cup game. And, while they weren't playing well, they were two goals down against Ecuador, not some powerhouse, which offered hope for the second half. And, sure, even though they were on their way to becoming the first host nation in World Cup history to lose the opening game (though they could not have known it at the time), Qatar still had -- and have -- two more opportunities against Senegal and the Netherlands.
Qatar's journey to the World Cup has been, at once, meticulous, expensive and, let's face it, Machiavellian. They won the bid in dubious circumstances in 2010, they built a world-class training center (the Aspire Academy) and filled it with the best youth coaches money could buy as well as gifted kids from around the world (who might, one day, be naturalized via residency).
They spent more than $220 billion on this World Cup -- more than twice the previous eight World Cups combined. They built stadiums and hotels and a brand-new airport. They bankrolled a domestic professional league with superstar coaches and players, from Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez to Colombia star James Rodriguez.
And yet, on this night, Qatar came up short in the one area they simply could not control.
No, I'm not talking about the performance on the pitch. Ecuador were substantially better, but that wasn't a surprise. Other than a guest appearance in the Gold Cup, this Qatar team haven't played any official competitions (unless you count the Arab Cup, and you probably shouldn't) since they won the Asian Cup in 2019. That's a very long time in football. Ecuador, in addition to having better players, came through the battle-hardening war of attrition otherwise known as CONMEBOL qualifying.
I'm referring instead to the home supporters. The people who, you know, would be the ones to actually care and be passionate about supporting their team -- the team their country had invested so much in. At the first bump in the road, however, many -- not all, by any stretch, but a significant amount -- were gone.
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Cultural differences? Not real fans? Random Qatari who were attending out of curiosity rather than a real passion for their team? It's hard to tell. And, to be clear, many stayed until the end. But those empty seats, frankly, will feel like a kick in the (crown) family jewels.
Why go through all this -- everything it took to get a World Cup, all the effort -- if not for national pride? Why have your fans just walk out well before the end of the game?
It jars with the messaging that Qatar has often told us, which is that Qatar is a football-loving nation full of fans with a passion for the sport. It's what Qatar claimed in 2010 in bidding to host the World Cup, and we've heard it ever since.
It's also a reminder that, yeah, this is a tiny country with about 300,000 citizens, counting the elderly and toddlers. And it's probably already a feat to get one-tenth of that population into a stadium like Al-Bayt. To expect them to also stick around for a defeat might have been too much to ask. And that's a bit depressing.
Money and an emir determined to host and compete in a World Cup can buy you a lot. What it can't buy you is 90 minutes of committed support for your national team from your population. Not when that population is itself wealthy and privileged -- Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world -- and if they don't like what they see, they'll vote with their feet. And nobody can stop them.