If France are heavily reliant on Kylian Mbappé then, given his illumination of a hitherto dreary match with Poland, that may be no hindrance. This is the third time covering a game at Al Thumama and leaving it has been a headache on the previous two, taxi pickups a vigorous hike away. But on this occasion two of us learn from past experience and exit slickly: we pitch up at the InterContinental hotel only 15 minutes into England against Senegal, joining Australia’s departing media corps to watch and commiserate. It is a shame to see them go having watched a gutsy Socceroos come close to overhauling Argentina a day ago, a lesson from which Lionel Messi and company will presumably learn.
We are in week three: the stage when faces become gaunter, words more mumbled, shoelaces more intently scrutinised. The second wind will come. A couple of spare hours bring a walk around the downtown district Msheireb. It is undeniably a triumph of design: light, clever and airy, offering a sense of gliding around. One of its museums pays tribute to the first Qatari oil workers, who risked everything to prospect for the substance that underpins the modern state. The displays are exceptionally done and these people’s voices needed hearing. Among its elements is the story of how pay and working conditions improved after British employers were lobbied; one wonders whether present-day Qatar might have learned more acutely from its own experience. Croatia, masters of walking football, complete the day with their protracted win against Japan.
Morocco against Spain is appointment viewing. Watching at “Arabian Nights” in Lusail brings a curious experience: it is this tournament’s best attempt at bringing local culture into a fan park setting although the flashing skyscrapers and claw-like Katara Towers overhead mean you cannot quite get consumed by desert vibes. A swathe of Arabic-speaking countries is represented in a crowd baying for a Moroccan win: it is definitely on as the clock passes 90, at which point a taxi is called just in time to arrive at Lusail Stadium’s media centre for penalties. Morocco prevail and their feat feels deeply significant. Cristiano Ronaldo’s omission from a rampant Portugal team is telling, too.
The first “rest day” after 17 straight days of football. It is a lovely idea but there are three articles to prepare before the quarter-finals. Time is spent in a Msheireb cafe, staring vacantly under the guise of studious thought, and then it is off to the Netherlands camp at Qatar University. An attempt to reach it via the swooping, raised metro line that pans northwards meets a closed entrance, an uncharmable security guard and a 30-minute walk to the appropriate gate. Inside, Virgil van Dijk smiles politely but will not mimic Louis van Gaal’s bombast before the match with Argentina. Much later there is pizza in, by Doha’s standards, an authentic and delicious Italian joint.
Brazil press conferences sometimes resemble therapy for their media pack: theories are expounded and opinions poured forth, and there is not always a sense the questioner requires an answer. Tite indulges it all, though, and is chirpy before they face Croatia. We will soon discover whether Brazil’s carefree approach has legs. The evening is spent in throbbing Souq Waqif, now effectively the shared territory of vast Morocco and Argentina supports. In conversation with several Morocco fans, who kindly give their time when they might rather be partying, the uniting impact of their success on the region is abundantly clear. Collating their thoughts at midnight is nothing compared to the effort thousands have made to share a moment in history.
One of this sport’s incomparable thrills is that you are never close to seeing it all. At Education City a match report about Croatia’s dogged pursuit of penalties becomes one centred on a magical Neymar moment and then about-faces into capturing an extraordinary comeback from the underdogs, who hardly deserve that tag any more. Brazil’s absence will be felt but it transpires a savvy Croatia, with Luka Modric irresistible, are not exposed like cavalier South Korea. Arriving in a bar as Messi puts Argentina two up against the Netherlands, there is a smug feeling earlier events cannot be topped. Enter Wout Weghorst, and an extra round of Buds.
All this becomes irrelevant upon waking to hear Grant Wahl, our colleague and a good friend to many, died last night after falling ill at the game. It would be devastating at any time and hits even harder at a tournament, where the sense of extended family is real. There are much better-placed people to speak about Grant’s life and extraordinary career, vital reporting and his legacy in the US, but I echo all those who remember a genuinely interested, super‑positive and hugely talented man who was unstinting in supporting his peers. We shared a passion for further-flung parts of football’s globe; it was always a joy to swap tales and advice. Every thought today is with those close to him. Rest in peace, Grant.