Ever since FIFA controversially awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, it’s never been too far from the sports headlines. News of bribery, corruption, controversial labour laws, abuse of migrant workers and monthly deaths during stadium construction have rarely been out of the foreign media, particularly in Britain.
As ever, things are different in Japan though. Mention the word Qatar to any Japanese soccer fan and it’s highly probable that they’ll refer to the “Agony of Doha” (ドーハの悲劇 Dōha no higeki). Readers of a nervous disposition may want to look away now for this is the nickname which refers back to that fateful day on 28th October, 1993 when Japan were on the verge of qualifying for their first World Cup.
Picture the scene; Japan are playing Iraq in Doha and with just seconds to go they lead 2-1 and are heading to USA ’94. However, the Iraqi team hit them on the break and earn a corner which is played short. The Iraqi player takes the man on and beats him, gets his cross in and there to meet it is Jaffar Omran Salman who glances a header past keeper Matsunaga into the corner leaving both the Japanese players and fans absolutely stunned. The defenders are totally deflated and sink to the turf in despair at what has just happened.
These days fans of the Samurai Blue perhaps almost take it for granted that their country will qualify for the World Cup but it was all a bit different a couple of decades ago which is why this game has gone down in the annals of Japanese football history. The score draw was played out in the capital of Qatar because back then a round robin format of matches was used to decide the final couple of qualifying games.
Whilst in the little-but-loaded Gulf state recently, I decided to visit the stadium which played host to the infamous 2-2 draw. Having arrived at Doha International Airport at 4.30 am I waited around for the sun to rise a couple of hours later before taking a taxi to the Al-Ahli Stadium, formerly known as Hamad Bin Khlifa Stadium. For a long time now, bus loads of Japanese tourists doing layovers in Qatar’s capital have been transported around the main sights of Doha and part of the itinerary has always included this crumbling old stadium.
Beforehand my expectations were fairly low as I knew it was an old, decaying ground far removed from the state of the art stadiums which are expected to pop up in the run up to 2022. Based on what I’d seen from the taxi passenger seat, vast parts of the city are building sites but none of that would quite prepare me for the welcome I’d receive on my arrival at this once famous stadium.
The first thing I actually saw was a signboard with an artists impression of what the stadium would look like way down the line when it may be used for some World Cup games. If I’d reversed onto the site of the sports club with a blindfold on after that I might not have been as shocked. The place really was a shadow of its former self and just about standing with the aid of scaffolding all over the place.
With the taxi metre still running I didn’t have too much time to waste so darted straight into the ground and asked one of the many men hanging about if I could see the pitch. Now, this kind of thing certainly wouldn’t work in many countries and it’s not something I’d usually do but time was money and all that. A guy led me through a tangled tapestry of cables, wires, hard hats, rubble and general emptiness before I was eventually left to my own devices and allowed to walk out the tunnel which captain Tetsuji Hashiratani led the Japan team out of. On that occasion, the stadium which holds 12,000, had around 4000 fans waiting to greet the sides. For me, it was a handful of mystified builders!
One of the workmen took an interest in what I was doing and looked at the screenshots of the game I had on my tablet for potential match-up shots. Sadly, he didn’t know about the Japan-Iraq game but I certainly filled in the details on that one. There really wasn’t much to see but at least the grass and goalposts were still there! I just wish I had a ball on me to kick around and do a recreation of that decisive qualification night.
Having finally taken the shots I wanted on the field (photography-wise!) I headed back down the tunnel advancing towards the main reception area. Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, lured to the country for one last pay day, actually played for the club between 2003 and 2005 and years later became an ambassador for Qatar’s successful World Cup bid and was also in charge of Barcelona when the club agreed a highly lucrative sponsorship deal to have the Qatar name (first the Qatar Foundation and then Qatar Airways) on their shirts.
Guardiola won nothing during his time at the club which may be a surprise to anyone seeing the clubs trophy room! Al-Ahli Sports Club is the oldest one in Qatar, having been established in 1950 and the reception area is absolutely packed full of trophies though god knows what most of them are as my research tells me that they have only ever won five cups! Anyway, among all the silverware is the item of most interest to me; a signed Japan home shirt from the 2010-2011 era.
Football in Japan has progressed a lot since the end of 1993 when the inaugural J-League had only been underway for about five months and some believe that the “Agony of Doha” helped shape things for the better as the team recovered and came back stronger to qualify for each successive World Cup thereafter.