Qatar begin their Asian Cup title defence in style with a 3-0 win over Lebanon in front of a passionate home crowd.
Lusail, Qatar – A little over a year since capturing the world’s attention in a memorable World Cup final, Qatar’s Lusail Stadium returned to the limelight as it hosted the opening match of the AFC Asian Cup 2023.
The regional tournament may not have the same ring to it as the World Cup, the players on the pitch may not evoke the same reactions as a certain Lionel Messi or a Kylian Mbappe, but there was no lack of passion as a major international football tournament returned to the country on Friday night.
A grand opening ceremony set the tone in the middle, a ring of colourful fireworks surrounded the golden mesh-like structure of the country’s biggest football venue and the home team came out of the opening match with a comfortable win over regional rivals Lebanon.
“It feels just like the World Cup to us,” Abdullah Sulaiti, an overjoyed Qatar fan, told Al Jazeera after Qatar’s 3-0 win in the Group A fixture that attracted more than 82,000 fans to the stadium.
“I’ve heard people say the ‘vibes’ are not the same as the World Cup but they need to step inside a stadium to feel the electric atmosphere.”
Indeed, before kickoff and up until the end of the first half, fans of both teams were making themselves heard with their singing and flag-waving. However, as soon as Qatar’s lead doubled 11 minutes into the second half, most of the crowd began making a beeline for the exit.
“We know our team has three points in the bag and we’ll back to support them in the next match,” Sara al-Malki, who watched the match with her three children, said while making her way to the exit.
A winning start for the Al Annabi (the Maroons) delighted the home fans who had been desperate for their team to show a glimpse of their title-winning run in 2019.
For Lebanon, and their fans who turned up in their thousands, it was a disappointing start to the tournament and one that leaves them clinging on to the hope that they can turn things around in their next two group games.
“I am not surprised at the result but perhaps the margin of it,” Abdul Rehman Fidawi told Al Jazeera after the match.
“Some of these players work a day job and then put in a shift on the pitch for the team, so it’s not fair to judge them against a team that has a better quality of players and facilities,” he said.
Fidawi said it did not surprise him to see a large turnout of Lebanese supporters.
“We may not have one of the best teams but we certainly have a huge presence in Qatar,” he added with a smile.
There was no lack of support for Palestine either.
It began as thousands of fans thronged the public transport, the streets leading up to the stadium and the venue itself in Palestinian colours.
Be it the black and white keffiyeh, a large flag draped across their backs, or smaller ones in their hands, football fans from across the region carried solidarity with the war-struck people of Palestine into the stadium.
“It means a lot to us when people put on such displays, especially the segment in the opening ceremony where acknowledged our identity – it showed the world that the Palestinians are not alone,” Dia Ebwini, a Qatar-based Palestinian, said.
Qatar’s captain Hassan al-Haydos, who was meant to take the oath as the representative of the host nation, passed on the honour to his Palestinian counterpart in a move that was welcomed by applause and chants in support of Palestine.
With the Palestinian team set to open their campaign in two day’s time against Iran, a bigger display of solidarity and show of emotions may still unfold at the Education City Stadium.
Until then, Qatar and its fans will bask in a moment that has been a year in the making – a win at the country’s iconic venue.