20,000 Strong Crowd Watches The Amir Cup Final in Qatar
December 18th 2020, on Qatar National Day, the final of the Amir Cup kicked-off, not just the ultimate match of one of the country's top-flight domestic football competitions, but also a return of fans to football stadiums and the inauguration of the fourth World Cup 2022 stadium.
Twenty thousand fans gathered at the new Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan to watch the final. The long-awaited match saw the tournament's most successful Qatari team Al Sadd, who have won the Cup 16 times since its inception, go head to head with eight-time competition champions Al Arabi.
Following nearly a year of silent stadiums during the global clutch of COVID-19, the crowd's excitement was palpable despite the stadium only seating 50% of its actual capacity. At least half of those 20,000 fans watched delightedly as Al Sadd booted their way to their 17th Cup title. The opening goal, three minutes into the game, was scored by the squad's top goal scorer, Baghdad Bounedjah. Al Arabi's Aron Gunnarsson kept The Red Devils dream alive with an equaliser in the 23rd minute. But, it was not Al Arabi's day. In the 44th minute of the game, Bounedjah gave Al Sadd the lead with another perfectly executed ball to the back of the opposition's net.
Though the new stadium was only half full, the crowd raised the proverbial roof. Gianni Infantino, who was present in the stands along with His Highness the Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, reportedly commented, "The Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium is a wonderful football stadium. The atmosphere is incredible, with the seats extremely close to the pitch. Even with a physically distanced crowd, I could feel the passion of the fans. I am sure this will be a perfect football arena in 2022 when it hosts matches during the World Cup."
More Than A Match
The match between Al Sadd and Al Arabi was, of course, a major event - the Amir Cup is one of the most popular events in Qatar's sporting calendar - but it wasn't the only reason for the excitement in the stands.
The match coincided with Qatar National Day, one of the most important events on the Qatari national calendar. Celebrated annually since 2007, it marks the unification of Qatar in 1878. Under the leadership of the country's founder, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, the various tribes were brought together and united in one common goal. That being, to become a free, independent and strong nation that could develop its peoples and economy according to its own needs. National Day gives the Qatari people, and all of Qatar's inhabitants, an opportunity, as a united nation, to celebrate the country's culture, history and, of course, its achievements.
Indeed, the rapid development of the country in the last seventy years, from Persian backwater to global powerhouse, is certainly worth celebrating. One future event that demonstrates the nation's progress on a worldwide scale is the 2022 World Cup. When Qatar was awarded the hosting rights for the biggest sporting event in the world, it catapulted the country on to the global stage. And, since that time this diminutive nation has, as the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament, been keen to show that it belongs centre stage. By delivering an amazing, environmentally sustainable competition that offers an entirely new fan experience in a modern, vibrant and stable country, it hopes to achieve that goal.
Auspiciously, Qatar National Day fell on the same day that marked the two-year countdown to the 2022 World Cup, and the Amir Cup final was held in the latest tournament stadium to be completed and served as the stadium's inauguration match. The atmosphere inside and outside the new 40,000 seat stadium was electric. The festivities, including a spectacular pre-match ceremony, were a collective celebration of national pride, World Cup madness, the success of yet another milestone towards the 2022 event, and of course, football.
Returning Fans To The Stands
In light of the problems wrought by COVID-19 in 2020, the match was also a celebration of a return to normalcy and freedom. Allowing 20,000 fans into the stadium to share their passion for football, to celebrate the country and its achievements on the road to 2022, was a stamp of authority over a tumultuous year. Though small numbers of fans had already been allowed into some matches since the summer, the sheer number of fans in Ahmad bin Ali Stadium during the Amir Cup final was a first for Qatar since the pandemic began. In fact, across the world, Qatar is one of very few countries to achieve this level of social gathering in sports since March 2020.
The decision to bring so many fans to the new stadium inauguration was based on the success Qatar accomplished in getting football back on its feet during the epidemic. Not only did the country manage to complete its domestic football leagues, but it also hosted the AFC Asian Champions League tournaments for the west and east regions. Under unprecedented and challenging conditions, and through rigorous planning and strict protocols, Qatar used its sports event management know-how, its experience in logistics, and understanding of crisis management, to pull off a triumphant event with barely any recorded COVID infections.
For the Amir Cup final, spectators were required to enter the stadium under strict protocols. Each attendee was required to present a negative COVID test result, or a positive antibody test, before purchasing their tickets. During the event, social distancing was needed within the vicinity of the stadium, the fan zone, and on public transport. And, inside the stadium, fans were obligated to wear masks, stay in their assigned seats, and refrain from eating or drinking.
Looking To The Future
The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium is the fourth of Qatar's eight new stadiums to achieve inauguration to date. Al Janoub, Education City and Khalifa International Stadiums have already been inaugurated. Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor is completed and awaiting inauguration. And, Al Thumama, Lusail and Ras Aboud Stadiums are all in the last stages of construction. The country, heading into 2021, plans to deliver the final stadiums well in advance of the tournament kick-off date in 2022. And, there are numerous up and coming events with which to test its venues and infrastructure, operational plans, and, no less importantly, the fan experience.
2021 will see Qatar host the FIFA Club World Cup (postponed from 2020 due to COVID) and the FIFA Arab Cup. Hopefully, the new year will herald better times for all in terms of the coronavirus crisis and allow many more fans to enjoy the next football tournaments to be played out on Qatari soil. It's certainly the hope of many in Qatar to attend another maiden game in any one of the next stadiums to reach completion!
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