A group of South Korean fans jump from their seats on the beach to celebrate a draw against Ghana in a game they will eventually lose. They all head to Qatar for the final group game against Portugal with the chance to see Cristiano Ronaldo play against his nation too good to turn down.
Across the road and later in the evening, Brazil fans have taken up their position in a fanzone that overlooks a harbor often filled with some of the world’s most expensive yachts. The pre-match entertainment is loud and lively, with bright lights and high-rise buildings in the background setting the stage for a sunset after another cloudless day. FIFA has six official fanzones stretching from London to Mexico City this World Cup, but none of them are as glamorous as here in Dubai, where soccer fans have flocked to watch the tournament in style as they handpick their days in Doha via a shuttle service. you want them to work all day.
It feels very much like a host city.
There’s an element of luxury to everything that combines sports and hospitality in Dubai, so it’s no surprise to see venues that show football, and there are many of them, offering various services to their high-end customers. .
For around £800 ($961), a group of up to eight people can spend two hours in the BudX FIFA Fan Park lounge watching a match of their choice. Hotels offer tailor-made packages for a more private viewing. Emirates Golf Club has luxury space available for football and in the Gate Avenue financial district, there is even a fan park where butlers and Michelin-starred restaurants add to the experience. Former Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp spent some time inside when The Athletic visited
Of course, the pretentious nature of drinking champagne in a VVIP section, that’s one thing here, doesn’t appeal to everyone.
High beer prices and an expensive flight during a cost of living crisis have ruled out a trip to the Middle East for many. There are a small number of Europeans at this World Cup with nations such as France, Holland, Germany and Spain not as well supported as before, largely due to logistics. Many ‘England away’ fans have also been turned away.
Those who planned ahead and saw Dubai as a long-term base during the tournament, with Qatar only a stopover point for the games, have enjoyed it, however.
Yes, there is a lack of real football tradition in this small part of the world, but it is growing. At McGettigan’s, a monster of a fanzone that can hold up to 10,000 people, the atmosphere during England games is electric with many neutrals, locals and expats following Gareth Southgate’s side. England are among the most popular nations here despite not having a superstar name like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Lionel Messi.
There are also ways to reduce the cost. Some fan parks are free, while others cost between £10 and £20 for general admission with the fee paid back through food and drink sales.
At Dubai World Central Airport (DWC), the younger sister of Dubai International, the world’s busiest airport by passenger numbers, there is a constant flow of colorfully decked-out fans every day. All say the shuttle flights were key to their decision to travel.
Diego is part of a group of 10 from Uruguay who say through an online translator at the airport terminal that staying in Dubai was “less risky and more fun” than Qatar, where there were concerns about cheap accommodation (often equivalent to the price of a four-star hotel in Dubai) and the reduced sale of alcohol.
Ronaldo’s name is chanted by Portugal fans as they are interviewed by local television. A large number of Brazil supporters have also gathered and you can spot them a mile away because of their yellow strip, but there is a twist. This group are all originally from China and live in the United States. “We like Neymar,” says one supporter before another reminds us that he is injured. They plan to watch the next round of matches at the base between rounds of golf.
Dubai Airports said it was still waiting to announce official figures for the final quarter, but predicted almost half a million passengers used DWC and that the “vast majority” can be attributed to day traffic.
Certain conditions are attached to the tickets, such as only being able to stay in Doha for a maximum of 24 hours.
There were some problems, like on the second day when the beer ran out at the airport because so many England and Wales fans were drinking on the way. Returning after England’s 6-2 win against Iran was a tiring experience as the final kick-off was delayed, according to fans, “because a group of Dutch fans initially went to the airport wrong of Doha”. It made for a 22 hour, 5am and 3am experience for many, although generally there weren’t many other complaints.
As the alternative was a significantly more expensive outlay on a non-shuttle flight plus accommodation that would have quickly ballooned into the (pounds) thousands, fans using the shuttles felt it was money well spent.
As many as 49 flights a day have carried passengers there and back, but in a non-World Cup period, there would only be six flights a day between the two destinations.
Just under two years ago, however, there was none, as Qatar was in the fourth year of a blockade of its land, sea and air borders imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Egypt.
The six countries had severed all ties with Qatar due to its economic ties to Iran (and other issues) until January 2021, when a declaration was signed restoring diplomatic relations between all parties. That is why there has been a show of unity in this World Cup between nations that have a history of not getting along.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, said last week that Qatar’s “achievement” to host the tournament was “the pride of the Gulf and a historic milestone for all Arabs”.
Of course, the benefit of being so close to the World Cup is that the UAE, which has been badly affected by the pandemic, has been able to restore visitor numbers after this huge increase in people in the area. Hotel occupancy has increased over the last two weeks.
Footballers with time off during the winter break in Europe showed up in force (stay tuned for a more detailed piece on this) and Premier League clubs Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Leicester City and Brighton will train and play friendly matches nearby in the coming days.
For the locals this means another dose of high-profile football as AC Milan and Lyon join Arsenal and Liverpool in the Dubai Super Cup from December 8-16.
Ninety percent of Dubai’s 3.5 million people are expats with more than 100,000 from Britain, so there are plenty planning to watch their team in action. Aston Villa-Chelsea at the CBF Al Wahda Challenge in Abu Dhabi on December 11 is another fixture that is attracting plenty of interest.
It is also the British who have perhaps the biggest footballing impact. There was a packed house at McGettigans last night as England beat Wales 3-0.
There were wild celebrations, chants and a rendition of Sweet Caroline. Luckily, the childhood sensation of throwing combs in the air has not yet reached the desert.
This Friday (December 2) is National Day, which means a long weekend and with the World Cup now entering an exciting phase – and England progressing – Dubai will remain a lively second home for this tournament
(Top photo: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg via Getty Images)