Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Interglobe Marine 146/3 vs Sona Gold & Diamonds 105/4 (CBFS T10 Cricket) - November 29, 2022

After leaving Qatar, I had one day in Dubai before a red-eye flight back to NYC. I searched for a sporting event and eventually found something known as CBFS T10 taking place in Sharjah, which is the Emirate next to Dubai. For those who don't know, the United Arab Emirates consists of six Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and Ajman) that were united in 1971, with Ras al Khaimah joining a year later. Dubai is the financial hub while Abu Dhabi is the capital and both are tourist spots in their own right, while the rest seem to be much quieter. Sharjah is where many Dubai workers live, so evening traffic can be extremely slow, something I found out a bit too late.

Anyway, I had discovered this event on a livescore app known as Sofa Score, so I assumed that it was a big deal. I could not have been more wrong. After getting dropped off, I spent time wandering around the venue with nary a fan in sight, past a desolate ticket window (below) before somebody kindly pointed out where I could enter the seating area.

I made my way inside and saw just two other fans in attendance. One of them told me there was something called the World Cup going on, which is why nobody was bothering with this. Later, three more people entered, making the total attendance six. It was a surreal experience to be watching a live event with so few fans and I was elated to add this storied venue to my list.

Sharjah Cricket Stadium has hosted the most one-day internationals in history, with its 244 matches 50% more than second-ranked Harare Sports Club in Zimbabwe. It has also hosted five test matches with Pakistan as the home side due to security concerns in Pakistan itself. Things would be a lot different on this night as T10 is the shortest form of cricket, with each side batting for just 10 overs, or 60 balls. As such, games take just 90 minutes, which was ideal for me having a flight in just a few hours.

I arrived just as Interglobe Marine was finishing up their batting and they ended at 146/3, a pretty good total. After the wicket was flattened (above), Sona Gold & Diamonds came to bat and started well, before a couple of wickets and some impressive bowling ended any chance they had. They capitulated with a dismal 104 runs, a veritable rout in this form of cricket. The scoreboard was turned off before I could capture a shot of their total.

There was another match starting about 45 minutes later, but I decided that it would be best to get back to my hotel in time for my flight. From what I could tell, this is not professional cricket, as the players were bringing their own equipment and taking taxis themselves. Still, it was the only chance I would get to see this ground, so it was worth the trip.

Next Up

I'll take a break and then head to the southwest over the holidays. The overall schedule is still TBD, but the main thing to see is Mullett Arena, the temporary home of the Arizona Coyotes. The Leafs play there on December 29 and that will allow me to keep current with Club 124. Check back for a recap in 2023.



Tuesday, November 29, 2022

2022 World Cup

Back in 2002, I worked at the World Cup in Japan, taking quotes from player interviews in the mixed zone (where players and coaches interact with the media) after the matches. I was paid to watch the matches from the media tribune, and then got to stand next to the players while they took questions, scribbling their answers for others to enter into FIFA's proprietary system so that reporters in other locales could use the quotes. After the final, in which Brazil defeated Germany 2-0, I took quotes from a despondent Oliver Kahn and a joyous Ronaldo. Later, the Brazilian team paraded the World Cup trophy through the mixed zone in front of perhaps 100 people. It was the best month of sports in my life, and I figured that I would never need attend a World Cup again. But when Canada made the 2022 edition, I decided that it would be worth the trip to Qatar to see them score their first World Cup goal after they were shutout in three matches in 1986. 

There was much controversy about Qatar being awarded the tournament in the first place. Should they have? Or course not, but Qatari leaders recognized that FIFA is spectacularly corrupt and acted accordingly. The country has since invested billions in infrastructure that will make it a tourism destination long after the event concludes. More recently, much negative press has arisen about Qatar's treatment of the migrant workers needed to build up this infrastructure, though finding a balanced and thorough report can be difficult. ESPN's E-60 documentary was the best I saw and it is worth watching if you can get it. Still, many have boycotted the event, as if not watching on TV would change anything. Most amusing was the indignant Brit on CNN spewing the lie about thousands dying while building the stadiums; how conveniently he forgets his own country's disgraceful colonial history. It might be hard to believe, but rich countries exploit poor countries. Is it right? Perhaps not, but I have yet to see a workable solution to global inequality and frankly, I have my own problems to worry about. Did any of the virtue signaling matter in the end? Nope. The games are being played and millions are watching around the world. Even those migrant workers were happy to stand outside a travel agency near my accommodation and watch the matches on a single TV inside.

Over a week in Doha, I attended eight matches, including two featuring Canada. I'm not going to post extensively about each match or stadium, but will provide a summary of the experience, which turned out to be far better than the media has portrayed. Two fellow sports travellers, Andrew and Ashvin, joined me and we all arrived on November 22, the third day of the tournament. We had booked a two-bedroom apartment in central Doha, and it turned out to be a fantastic find, located just 15 minutes from Msheireb, the only metro station at which all three metro lines converge and thus very convenient to most of the eight stadiums being used. It wasn't cheap at $300 per night, but with a full kitchen and a washer/dryer, it was a better bet than hotel rooms, which were going for 2 or 3 times that. The best part is that we were in a local neighbourhood, with relatively few other tourists about. We explored supermarkets and cheap restaurants and were warmly greeted wherever we went. 

Msheireb is considered the new centre of Doha and there were several soccer related activities in the area, including a tribute to CONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation. Among the items on display was a giant replica of the Copa Libertadores trophy. 

After catching the second half of scoreless Mexico vs. Poland on the night we arrived, our first full match was the next day at Khalifa International Stadium, where Japan was taking on Germany. This is the only stadium that was built before the tournament was awarded, having been constructed in 1976. 

An extensive renovation in 2017 made it part of the Aspire Zone, which includes the Torch, a 5-star hotel shaped like, well, a torch (below). It was here that we first discovered the level of organization that kept things running smoothly. At every metro station, fans were directed by dozens of workers to ensure that they got to their trains without issue, and the same experience awaited you on your way out to the stadium, in some cases being herded like cattle. Trains ran every three minutes and although they were crowded, it wasn't as bad as Tokyo in rush hour. Outside the stadium, you could deal with ticket issues or store any bags before making your way through lanes similar to airport security to the spectator entrance, where your Hayaa card (essentially an electronic visa) and match ticket were scanned before you went through a metal detector. 

Between the spectator entrance and the stadium itself was usually a large plaza that included a fan zone with a TV showing the other matches (below is the fan zone outside Ahmad bin Ali Stadium), as well as some concession stands serving a very limited and rather bland menu that thankfully excluded beer. Budweiser was not happy with the news that its regular beer would not be sold at the venues, but the complete lack of drunk yobs ruining the experience for everyone was a welcome change, and there was plenty of overpriced swill (50 QAR or $13.75) available at FanFests around the city, not to mention various hotel bars. If you were really desperate, you get non-alcoholic Bud Zero, perfect for those who love the taste of carbonated piss. 

To enter the stadium proper, your match ticket had to be scanned again and you had to use the correct gate as the stadiums were partitioned. In some cases, you could not even move to the upper level for pictures. This meant there was no reason to arrive early as typical stadium touring simply wasn't possible.

Khalifa is the stadium where FIFA's odd ticketing setup was most noticeable. For all stadiums, tickets were divided into three categories, with Category 1 (800 QAR or $220) essentially between the boxes, Category 2 (600 QAR or $165) the corners, and Category 3 (250 QAR or $69) behind the nets. What made it odd, at least when compared to typical seating configurations in North America, was that the category applied regardless of how close to the field the seat actually was. So you would have fans sitting at the very top of the stadium near midfield paying over three times as much as a fan sitting in the first row behind the goal. Look at the upper deck in the photo above, so far away, yet those seats are considered more desirable than my first row location in the corner (view below). I had bought the ticket from a German and was sitting in the German supporters section, which meant that I had to be quiet when Japan scored. Which they did. Twice. Thus earning their biggest World Cup win in history. 

It was quite gratifying to see them celebrate the upset (below) while the Germans grumbled, and the Samurai Blue won their group after beating Spain, only to lose their R16 match on penalties to Croatia. South Korea remains the only Asian nation to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup, doing so as co-host in 2002 (they actually made the semis before falling to Germany).

Although I was very happy to see Japan win, I had no time to rest, heading straight to Ahmad bin Ali Stadium to see Canada take on #2-ranked Belgium. The stadium was beautifully lit with flags of both nations rotating along the exterior.

I had an upper corner seat (Category 2) and was hopeful of a Canadian goal as Belgium had not played well in their most recent warmup match, losing 2-1 to Egypt.

When a penalty was awarded to Canada after a video review, I thought my wish would come true, but Alphonso Davies' attempt was poor and Thibaut Courtois had no trouble saving it (below). Canada would go on to lose 1-0 after a Belgian goal that was eerily similar to the one Japan had scored against them in the friendly in Dubai a week prior. The shutout meant that I had to change my plans considerably to see the Canucks next game against Croatia.

The following day I had just a single game, heading to Al Janoub Stadium for Switzerland and Cameroon. Andrew and Ashvin also had a ticket to this game, so we took an Uber and learned that the air conditioning systems for the stadiums are housed in separate buildings that are architecturally similar to the stadium itself. It is really impressive engineering when you think about it. 

My Category 3 seat was in the sun for the first half, so I moved around as much as I could, but this stadium, like many soccer venues, was partitioned so that you could only explore the area close to your seat. Not that there is much to see at any of these stadiums; they are attractive architecturally but purely functional otherwise. Switzerland beat Cameroon 1-0 in the match with the lowest attendance in the tournament.

That night, I went out to Lusail Iconic Stadium with the others, just to see the stadium and the area surrounding it. We dined at G.O.A.T, a sports bar in Le Meridien, which also happened to be the hotel at which the Swiss team was staying. Coincidentally, it was another Group G match with Brazil taking on Serbia and tickets were a bit too dear for me, particularly as I now had to figure out how to get into Canada vs. Croatia. The stadium is the largest of the eight, with capacity in excess of 88,000, and will host the final.

The next day, I had a pair of games, starting with Qatar and Senegal at Al Thumama Stadium. This one was a bit difficult to get to using transit, but when I checked on Google Maps, I saw it was just over an hour away from our accommodation on foot. So I slathered on the sunscreen and headed over, passing through some very quiet residential areas along the way. The stadium is named for a nearby street it would appear, and I should note that English signs are everywhere, making tourism quite easy.

Al Thumama is quite an attractive venue from the outside, with its exterior resembling a taqiyah hat, the traditional cap that is worn by men and boys in the Middle East.

It was here that I picked up a Qatari flag, one of several that I obtained during my time here. They are light and easy to carry and make good educational tools back home. I really should have tried to get all 32, but alas my time was limited.

It was also at this match that I first saw the giant inflatable World Cup trophy that was set up as part of the pre-game festivities. 

The crowd was mostly Qatari and considering that of the 3 million residents in the country, only about 12% are native, I would guess that 1 in 10 native Qataris was in attendance here.

It made for an interesting sight as the men all dress in white thobes, a long shirt over loose pants. When sitting together, they look like empty seats. Although Qatar lost, they did score their first (and only as it would turn out) World Cup goal, sending the locals into paroxysms of joy. 

After the match, I walked partway back to our place, grabbing an Uber once traffic died down. I met Andrew and Ashvin and we headed out to Al Bayt Stadium for England vs. USA, a match that held much promise. This venue was the farthest from Doha, requiring at least a 40-minute ride. Our driver was quite aggressive and saved us about 30 minutes waiting in line to enter the parking lot by racing along the shoulder, which earned him a big tip. Al Bayt is the second-largest stadium of the bunch, seating over 60,000 (accurate capacities are hard to come by for some reason, with attendance figures exceeding the official capacity at all venues). As you can see below, it looks like a giant circus tent.

I originally was scheduled to see Spain and Germany here on Sunday night, but that conflicted with Canada and Croatia. So I picked up a ticket to this match on FIFA's official resale platform and put my ticket up for resale. The match was disappointing as England played a rather dreary game to earn the scoreless draw. Afterwards, it took quite a while to get back home due to the traffic and a rather roundabout way back to the highway; I was glad I would not have to navigate here alone.

The next day I headed over to Education City Stadium, so named because it lies among a number of university campuses, including Northwestern and Texas A&M. The match featured the upstart Saudis against Poland, and tickets were surprisingly tough, as many fans had made the short trip from Saudi Arabia to see the match.

They even made a cute little sign in my honour, although they missed the E and N for some reason.

After Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, there was hope for another upset but their fans were ultimately disappointed as Poland won 2-0, with the second goal coming from Robert Lewandowski, his first on the World Cup stage. He is buried underneath his teammates in the photo below.

The next day was the big one as I made my way back to Khalifa for Canada's second match, with 2018 runner-up Croatia providing the opposition. I had picked up a seat just five rows up at midfield, which allowed me to walk straight back up to the top of the lower bowl, where I saw an unusual sight: section 802 right above section 324. I guess this was part of the renovation, but I am sure there were some confused fans around here before every match.

I had spent quite a bit for this seat and it was well worth the splurge when Davies scored just 68 seconds into the match. It was Canada's first-ever World Cup goal and being there to see it immediately vaulted into my Top 10 sports experiences of all time.

Sadly, however, Canada was unable to defend for the remaining 88 minutes and lost 4-1 in a game that ruthlessly exposed the difference in quality between the plucky upstarts and a true soccer nation. Canada also lost their final match to Morocco, finishing ahead of only Qatar based on goal difference. As it turned out, both Croatia and Morocco made it to the quarterfinals, so Canada was in the toughest group and really should have gotten the point against Belgium. Oh well, on to 2026, when Canada will host along with the USA and Mexico.

My final day in Qatar had just one evening game, so I did some touring in the afternoon before making my way to Stadium 974 for Brazil vs. Switzerland. This venue is named after Qatar's 974 country code and contains 974 shipping containers that were used as toilets, concession stands, and information stands. It was a pretty cool setup and even more interesting, the stadium will be dismantled after it hosts its final match.

The Brazilian fans were out in force and were rewarded with a 1-0 victory in a game that had a rather dull first half. In fact, of the 48 group stage matches, exactly half had a scoreless first half.

The most exciting incident was when a Neymar lookalike was walking up the stairs. Given that Neymar was injured, it was highly unlikely that he would be wandering around the stadium, but Brazilian fans thought it was him and created a minor disturbance until he was whisked away. Turns out this gentleman had caused havoc elsewhere and Brazilian fans are rather gullible.

When the match ended, I headed straight to the airport, catching a midnight flight back to Abu Dhabi. As we took off, I had one final look at Doha, where I spent one of the most memorable weeks of my life. Once again, the media is more concerned with generating clicks than accurate reporting and the Qataris did an excellent job of hosting this event. 

Qatar is thinking of bidding for the 2036 Olympics, so who knows, maybe I will be back.



Monday, November 21, 2022

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Qualifying - November 19, 2022

It was back in 2020 when I realized that the 2022 World Cup would take place around the same time as the 2022 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. When the F1 schedule was announced last year, it worked out perfectly, with the race to take place the day before the World Cup would start (FIFA later moved the opening match back a day, screwing those who had tickets to the race and the soccer). So when I got around to booking flights, I avoided the overpriced flights direct to Qatar and flew to Dubai via Emirates, using their free bus to get to Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately, the race would not be as meaningful as last year, when a controversial restart allowed Max Verstappen to take the title, but even then ticket prices for the race were astronomical on the secondary market. As such, I decided to visit the Yas Marina Circuit on Saturday for qualifying. It is a very long but comfortable bus ride from downtown Abu Dhabi to Yas Island, and you pass the Warner Brothers theme park (the largest indoor theme park on the planet) and Ferrari World on the way there. 

At the track, I picked up a ticket for the main grandstand and made my way inside. As with all racetracks that host F1, the circuit is huge so you want to enter the gate closest to your seat, as it can take 30 minutes or more to walk from one grandstand to another. So before heading over the main grandstand, I snuck into the west grandstand to watch part of free practice 3. 

The west grandstand is at the end of a long straightaway coming out of the north grandstand (above) with a small chicane (below) at the end. This would be an interesting place to watch the race, and most of it was shaded as well, important if you are planning on spending the entire afternoon in your seat.

As the cars slow down to take the chicane, you can grab a picture even with a crappy phone camera; that is George Russell of Mercedes below.

At the far end of the west grandstand, you can look directly at the start/finish line with the main grandstand on the left and the VIP suites above the pits on the right.

After watching FP3 for a bit, I headed over to the main grandstand. This is where the majority of the activities were taking place, and there was a good selection of food and drink available along with some shaded seating areas at which to enjoy your meal.

One of the more impressive sights was a car in UAE colours embedded in the exterior wall. 

There were some other displays including one dedicated to Manchester City (their stadium naming rights are owned by Etihad); I particularly enjoyed the old programs below the De Bruyne jersey.

Some Emirati gentlemen performed a simple sword dance that seems quite common in the area as I noticed similar acts at the World Cup.

Before qualifying got underway, the Emirati Air Force display team (known as Al Fursan or "The Knights") put on an excellent show that saw several flybys, with the red, white, and green prominently displayed.

My seat for was in the second row and still in the sun as the F2 sprint race got underway. That saw an accident on the first turn, which led to a long delay, allowing me to get some food while things were cleaned up. 

Qualifying got underway at 6 and I moved down to the finish line for Q3, so I could see Verstappen leaving the garage for the final time (below).

The qualifying session was predictable, with Verstappen taking the pole (below), and he won the race the next day too, his 15th of the 22 Grands Prix on the season. Not a particularly interesting year in the sport, but with a lot of driver changes coming up, next year might be more compelling.

Formula 1 has become extremely popular here in the States due to the Drive to Survive show on Netflix, and attending an event at Austin, Miami, or now Las Vegas, is ridiculously expensive. I don't know how many more races I will attend, so I was glad to get this off my bucket list as part of a larger trip.


Flying out of AUH, you should sit on the left side, where you might get a good shot of the entire track.

The main grandstand and VIP area are in the foreground facing each other while the west grandstand is the bent one just behind them. To the left are the marina and south grandstands, while the north grandstand is out of the picture.