By Onochie Anibeze in Doha
On the queue at the immigration early Saturday morning at Hamad International Airport here in Doha, Qatar were one man and his son in Peru colours.
‘They are here for their game on Monday’, Duro Ikhazuagbe of Thisday said while trying to capture what the atmosphere would be like when Peru face Australia for one of the two remaining spots for the Qatar 2022 World Cup finals that will kick off in November. Peru finished 5th in the CONMEBOL qualifiers and will play Australia who defeated UAE in the AFC playoff June 7. On Tuesday, Costa Rica and New Zealand will battle it out for the last slot. The two matches will be played here in Qatar, the first time a World Cup host will be hosting intercontinental playoffs of other regions.
Fans are already gearing up for the games. The Peru fan at the immigration is probably aware that his country’s game against Romania in the first ever World Cup holds the record of lowest attendance in any World Cup finals match. He probably doesn’t want a repeat, not even in a playoff. 300 fans watched Romania beat Peru in 1930 when Uruguay hosted the first ever World Cup. Peru were among the 13 countries that participated and finished 10 out of the 13 teams. It was a violent game and Peruvian player earned the first ever World Cup red card. They, however, enjoy the record of being at the first World Cup. Does that make them a known football country? They have won Copa America twice and qualified for the World Cup finals five times, finishing 7th in Mexico in 1970 and in the top 8 at Argentina 1978. Peru will be attempting to appear in two consecutive World Cup finals having played in Russia 2018 where they did not go beyond the first round.
These are no longer the days of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill in Australian colours. They might not have played at the same time but they were names that attracted fans to their games at the their times. At various times, they helped in the five World Cup finals appearances of Australia. Australia have one Asian Cup to their name. They did well in their own estimation at 2006 World Cup where they lost to Italy, the eventual winners who benefited from a stoppage time penalty. They had placed ahead of Japan and Croatia in the group stage. Peru beat them four years ago and on paper are favourites to play in the finals here in Qatar in November.
With Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy headed by Hassan Al-Thawadi out to deliver the best World Cup ever, fans from all over the world have started buying tickets to be part of the spectacle this year. The playoffs have not been left out. And that’s why the Peruvian and his son want to be part of it and return for the main event in November. ‘Many will be part of the festival in November,’ Duro said, pointing at the man and adding ‘families will be here, these are good signs of the carnival we all expect in November.’
Qatar has been hosting events not only to prepare for the World Cup but also to develop and enrich sports culture here, some legacies for even the unborn generation. They have hosted Asian Games, Fifa Club World Cups, Track and Field events, Motor racing, Tennis, World Championships etc. They are not done. The two intercontinental playoffs are part of the build-ups to the finals.
On Tuesday, Costa Rica will take on New Zealand. Costa Rica have the pedigree to advance to the finals here in November. They beat Greece in penalties to reach quarter finals at the 2014 World Cup and set the country on ‘fire’. 2018 in Russia was their fifth time at the finals. When they play New Zealand on Tuesday fans will expect them to outplay the two-time World Cup finalists.
The battles for who will return to Qatar in November will be exciting even as the losers will have some consolation that they have played at the World Cup venues and experienced some amazing things even before the finalists. Some good feeling, isn’t it?