Back to top

Ta-ra to Qatar - my World Cup 22 review

I’m sitting on a 6 hour flight from Doha back to Heathrow T4 and my inflight entertainment thingy in seat 27K is steadfastly refusing to work - so I thought I’d reflect instead on the World Cup I’ve just witnessed in Qatar. A tournament more controversial than any previous edition; one which sought to show itself as an all-embracing celebration of our love for the beautiful game, but raised more red flags off the pitch than yellow cards on it.

If you ask me what I personally made of the Qatar experience and approach to holding and policing this World Cup, my answer would be that, much as with Russia 4 years ago, most commentators & reporters only really see a sanitised version of any country that hosts it - you’re constantly on the move from hotel to Broadcast Centre to stadium to press conference to team training ground to hotel to stadium to media shuttle bus (not forgetting to airports if in a large country) to metro station to Uber rank and finally back in your room without really taking in any of the real culture and values a host country possesses. I had one short trip to the Souq mall near me one afternoon and it all felt like it was rendered to look like ancient streets and buildings with shops and stalls therein. A bit like Frontiers Land at Disneyworld! Most of the time, you just see FIFA logos burning onto the backs of your retina, and you could - language and climate aside - be absolutely anywhere on earth.

That climate bit is not entirely true in Qatar’s case as this was a World Cup held for the first time effectively in a desert, with all stadia within 40 minutes of each other in an area smaller than Yorkshire, only less green-tinged.

Also, our talkSPORT team did experience the odd moment of over-zealous resistance to something deemed to be provocative when it was merely showing solidarity with groups who face oppression in this part of the world. That was when Adrian Durham’s small rainbow lapel badge got him into seeming hot water with the security guards at one media entrance to a stadium shortly after the tournament got underway. It was settled as a matter fairly quickly in the end, despite Adrian initially feeling somewhat uncomfortable at his heavy handed treatment, but we heard many a tale in the opening 10 days about fans’ t-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia that were seen as inflammatory gestures by Qatari police. All totally unnecessary and all likely, it seemed, to render this whole competition as something which would have little to do with a football - unless it was a political one.

And then a couple of days in, Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in their first match, causing one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history and immediately jeopardising the progress of one of the favourites to lift the trophy. The joy of the Saudi players and fans in the Lusail came across so strongly as I watched on my hotel television and the headlines began to include matters more on the pitch whilst not ignoring the clear problems around the stadia. As Stuart Pearce put it “We’re off and running, fella!”

I had covered the opening game to start my 5th World Cup for talkSPORT…the Al Bayt Stadium saw the hosts lose 2-0 to Ecuador and the apparent fire drill in the stands that accompanied Ecuador’s 2nd goal with Qatari fans heading for the exits in droves despite a long time left to play, was not a good look for a country that was taking its World Cup bow in its own backyard.

Empty seats were in evidence as the group stages progressed into the knockout rounds and there was much talk of locals getting free tickets at the 11th hour to watch games in order to fill up stands that were only intermittently full.

But that’s not to say that travelling fans didn’t make their voices heard. Some of the supporters were quite incredible. There were the Mexicans with their Lucha Libre get ups and massive sombreros; The Japanese, who probably made the most noise without dominating attendances with their non-stop singing and drumming (including one chant in 7/8 time, which intrigued me as a musician!); Argentina who seemed to have 80% at least of tickets for every game they played…and the Moroccans, who as I type are the first African nation to make a semifinal appearance. Extraordinary noise.

TalkSPORT had its main home at a hotel in the Al Saad region, with most presenters and management staying there, whilst some production staff were housed in apartments some 15 minutes away. An on-site studio was put into one of these apartments so that the breakfast and mid morning shows could be broadcast in both sound and vision from Doha. The air conditioning in our rooms became an early talking point…as it affected our ability to talk mostly! Within a few days most had turned the fans off in their rooms as it was felt something in the air-con was not good for our collective larynxes. And if there’s one thing guaranteed to get a presenter or commentator flapping, it’s a dodgy larynx.

I would be working with a wide variety of pundits at this tournament. 4 years ago I was exclusively alongside Matt Holland for the duration of my trip. There was a geographical sense to that idea given the travelling and whatnot. Because we were all in the same place for a month meant that commentary teams could be mixed up a bit. That meant Dean Ashton first up for me. I’ve worked with Dean before and he’s terrific company-relatively quiet within our group socially speaking, but great knowledge and enthusiasm for in-game summarising. I think he felt as privileged as I did when he was chosen to cover the opening match alongside Adrian and our producer Jason Bourne.

I understood the importance as I walked into the stadium of setting the right tone for what was to come on the airwaves in the coming weeks and the privilege was not lost on me as ever. Qatar were poor, though - I expected better things from a side who’d won the 2019 Asian Cup conceding just 1 goal and scoring plenty, but they offered very little and were the first team to fail to qualify out of their group.

But in terms of disappointing performances, Qatar are quite a bit down the list this year. Other more fancied nations were shockingly bad. Belgium played with the same lack of tempo and intensity that Capello’s England did back in 2010 and I commentated on their final 2 group matches-defeat to that tough Morocco side followed by a listless performance in a 0-0 with Croatia. We only used to pity the Belgians inability to compete on “Jeux Sans Frontieres” of a Friday night on BBC1 - this was just as painful to watch.

Germany weren’t much better and they too bowed out at the group stage-for the second tournament running too. I was in the stadium when Japan came from behind to beat them 2-1 and set the Teutonic alarm bells ringing once again as Die Mannschaft were well and truly shafted. Japan getting closer every tournament to making a first quarter final, that seems certain

I got to see a lot more games outside of my commentary commitments than I had expected upon arrival. Way more. You see, what happens is that on occasion at a commentary match your station is doing, you may be offered 1 or 2 extra ‘observer seats’ which are situated just next to the media tribune that we work in. These observer seats are not to be expected as a given, but they WERE readily given by the organisers-in generous numbers for pretty much every game. Perhaps another indicator of how soft general ticket sales must have been.

That meant I was able to attend all of England’s games bar the USA one, plus the likes of Wales’ opener against the States, that Japan/Germany belter, and France’s shock defeat to Tunisia at the end of the group stage.

I will say at this point that whilst I didn’t attempt the ‘watch 4 games in one day’ thing that Adrian and Jim Proudfoot successfully did (22000 steps later) on the 2nd Saturday of the tournament, getting to see 2 games a day was perfectly possible thanks in large part to the excellent Metro system around the city. We’ll never have a World Cup like that again in that respect.

Days usually started with the ‘talkSPORT Breakfast Club’ in the hotel’s mezzanine restaurant. We’d all convene in there and practically take over the place, checking over the days arrangements and generally taking the piss out of one another. Simon Jordan became an early figure of fun, having turned his nose up at his hotel room’s standards and promptly sourced a posher one elsewhere. Stuart Pearce was on him from that very moment.

Dean Saunders was with us to cover all of Wales’ games plus one or two others and he (along with some pillock who did impressions) was the class clown of the group. Fiercely pro-Welsh as you might expect, he was always ready with the salt and pepper pots plus whatever else came to hand at the table to talk tactics. When someone told him I did a great impression of him he quickly replied “What-he’s scored 25 goals a season for 5 years in a row??” That was funny!

It’s always nice as someone who’s seen his fair share of major tournaments abroad to see things from the perspective of first timers, like I was in South Africa. Alex Crook, Joe Shennan, Natalie Sawyer and producers like Jason & Izzy were all tournament virgins so to speak, but got to the pace of things so quickly, you would never have known they’d not been part of a team like this before. And being a good tourist is as important as being good at your job most of the time.

Our collective resolve was put to the test on my first full night in Doha when we were invited by former talkSPORT presenter Rhodri Williams to dine at his curry house restaurant across the city. Rhodri owns several eating places in the one hotel and it was so lovely to see him again. What we hadn’t bargained for was the sheer drunken carnage we witnessed upon our arrival in a group of around 20. It seems all the local teaching fraternity in Doha had just been given the month off as schools were closing for the duration of the tournament. It must be a high pressure job out there, because they were collectively ON IT at the curry place long before we arrived.

It was like Broad St at chucking out time on Saturday night/Sunday morning. But we dutifully stepped over the bodies and the detritus and eventually enjoyed a lovely meal, despite the unfolding chaos around us! We went back on another night for a much more sedate evening out, thankfully. Cheers Rhodri butty! And how folk get so dribbly pissed at £14 a pint God only knows!

One personal highlight for me was meeting and interviewing Jude Bellingham at England’s training camp. Bluenose met Bluenose in our interview room and he was a delight to talk to. He even seemed to know who I was (lol) but he is an avid fan of Ally McCoist, so we got Ally to record a wee video message to play for Jude just before we started the interview. He was made up. I think all Blues fans like me are immensely proud of Jude’s progress since leaving us not long back. Still a teenager and yet captaining his club in Germany is no mean feat-I sense the England captaincy will come his way before long. And he did laugh at my suggestion that the reason we retired his No.22 shirt at Blues was because we’re keeping it open for him to return and help us win the Premier League title some years from now…what? What did I say? Stop laughing…

Another huge highlight was the final game I did commentary for - the Netherlands/Argentina quarter final in Lusail Stadium. That last 10 minutes as the Dutch found the courage to battle back from 2-nil to force extra time with one of the smartest free kicks you’ll ever see - especially brave considering it was pretty much the last chance of the 90’! I’d already seen that Morocco win over Belgium and Portugal edging past Ghana but that last game I did had it all…and how no one got sent off is beyond me!

Once again I’m left marvelling at this World Cup at the quality and consistency of Adrian Durham’s work. He’s now our chief live football presenter, someone I’ve worked with for nearly 20 years now, and who works harder than anyone you can point to in this business to stay knowledgeable and convey the sense of occasion. He nails it every single time and it’s stunning to watch him work alongside you knowing implicitly what to say when picking up from me at half time or full time.

I’ve also met and worked with new pundits out here. Lianne Sanderson was a force of nature when I worked with her on a couple of matches. Stridently opinionated, she was a great ex-pro to be around - and I finally got to do a commentary game with the aforementioned Dean Saunders when Argentina met Australia in the Round of 16. He was astonished watching Messi just strolling about the pitch and remarked “I’d be pulling him straight off at half time, I would…” Not sure he meant that…or THAT either!!

And England? Well, we came, we saw, we played a little better than usual. Whether Reece James or Ben Chilwell would have made a difference is open to question as there’s little to criticise Kyle Walker or Luke Shaw for. The decision to throw Sterling on as 1st change against France seemed odd give the 5 days he’d been through personally prior to that. I don’t particularly want to get into the revisionism that always accompanies an early tournament exit, but suffice to say that those claiming ‘Kane should never have taken the second pen’ are laughable. Were they really saying that as he cradled the ball under his arm awaiting the VAR call? Really? And you just know those same revisionists would be first in line to castigate Southgate had he given pens duties to someone else at that point only for them to miss themselves. Hindsight is always 20/20.

And now I’m home to the ice and snow of pre-Xmas Britain, leaving the rest of the team to battle through the heat and sunshine out there for one more week, poor folk. Not that it’s a holiday - when you’re working at a major tournament, rest and relaxation are pretty far from your thoughts! Speaking of which…

Random thoughts on the trip

* the talkSPORT hotel had a ‘7-11’ …that’s open 24 hours…
* Producer Dec and Joe Shennan both vied for the title of ‘whitest man on tour’. Dec was that pale, you could almost see through to his heart like a new born fish
* Breaded Calamari and fried Chicken wings are not acceptable breakfast buffet fayre
* Dean Saunders’ impression of former Wales boss Bobby Gould is quite astonishing
* I have no idea how none of us were in a car accident during our stays due to the frighteningly aggressive Uber drivers and car owners in general
* Shisha pipes are a way of life in Qatar. Almost every bloke looks like he’s wired up to one like an intravenous drip when eating or drinking
* It gets dark in Doha incredibly quickly once the sun sets
* My Jim White/Dean Saunders impressions seemed to go down well with the team
* Most of the towering skyscrapers you see in the West Bay Area of the city (all twinkly and beautiful at night as well as imposing looking from a distance in daytime) are, in truth, all fur coat and no knickers when you stand underneath them-the bottom few stories (not visible when viewed from some way away) are construction sites still. I’m presuming they won’t stay like that forever.
* Richard Keys on Bein Sports TV across the Middle East repeatedly referred to this as “The People’s World Cup”. I could not disagree more
* In a conversation at dinner one evening sparked by Stuart Pearce designed to learn a fact about a colleague that we wouldn’t know, Dean Ashton won a youth tennis tournament playing left handed, Adrian Durham was once pulled over on the A1 driving alone with no trousers on (!) and Jim Proudfoot had designs on becoming a professional musician (violinist) in his teens!
* The call to prayer that emanates from mosques across the city through megaphones at various times across the day in Qatar is a truly remarkable and haunting sound.
* I don’t forsee a return to Qatar in future
* Can Qatar Airways take a look at the inflight entertainment for seat 27K on flight QR001? Thanks ever so


Add new comment