A sweet volley and a sour taste

Treatment of ticket-holding fans from Asian Cup final won in spectacular fashion by Japan has caused considerable anger

    A beautiful piece of wing play, a pinpoint cross and a sumptuously-struck volley from Tadanari Lee won the Asian Cup for Japan against Australia but the story off the pitch in Doha painted an uglier picture.

    With Qatar attempting to prove that it has the ability to host football's World Cup in 2022, thousands of fans were confronted by riot police and barred from entering the Khalifa Stadium up to an hour before Saturday's kickoff.

    The official line is that 700 ticket-holders were denied access when 3,000 people showed up hoping to pay on the turnstiles.

    But the evidence of countless fans who contacted Al Jazeera or told their stories on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr suggests otherwise.

    The response provided by organisers on Sunday was one of regret, but also one of excuses, and does a disservice to those who were scared, angry or just disappointed as police responded aggressively to the crowds forming on the perimeter fence.

    It does not add up that people arriving without tickets would keep trying to get in when they were told the gates were shut.

    These were families with children, groups of young friends and couples. A polite football crowd of Qataris and expats – not Millwall casuals or Lazio ultras on an away day.

    Something went seriously wrong with the organisation of Asian football's biggest final and the affability of the Qatar 2011 officials in explaining away the problem does not hide that.

    A volunteer who was helping the Asian Football Confederation on matchdays told me a story about what they saw just under three hours before kickoff on Saturday.

    "At 3:15pm, one of the gates was opened and hundreds of people – workers from India, the Philippines, Pakistan – ran through and got in for free," they said.

    "By 4pm, two ends of the ground were full. There were more busloads waiting outside and between 4:30 and 5pm they started filling the middle section."

    Here's the theory put forward to me by several people who have worked on the Asian Cup this month.

    Poor crowds

    The tournament has experienced poor crowds for matches other than those featuring the hosts.

    Not only was the final being shown around the world, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter was in attendance along with the Heir Apparent of Qatar.

    To avoid empty stands, immigrant workers were bussed in to fill up the ground. That's the theory. If it's true, then it backfired.

    Operations director Jassim Al Romaihi denied on Sunday that anyone without a ticket had gained entry to the ground.

    Our Asian Cup volunteer continued: "All the people outside the ground had tickets – they were waving them in the air. The people who were brought in to fill the ground were being handed balloons and flags to make them look like real fans."

    My understanding is that members of the Qatar 2022 bid team are furious about what happened on Saturday. And rightly – this is a PR disaster that the World Cup organising committee, when it is formed, will now have to deal with.

    It doesn't help the fans who missed the match, but maybe it is a lesson that needed to be learned.

    This tournament almost passed off seamlessly. A sceptical world media arrived at the beginning of January looking for reasons why Qatar was a poor choice for the World Cup.

    They didn't find much. It's hot here. Fans didn't particularly want to watch Uzbekistan play China. That was about it.

    The stadiums were good, media services excellent, and matchdays came and went without a hitch.

    But you cannot have fans with tickets – some of them who have travelled halfway across the world – denied access to a major international football final, and you cannot have them treated disdainfully by police.

    Behind the genial PR facade, it is to be hoped that the organisers' promise to investigate what happened on Saturday, both in terms of ticketing and policing, is being taken very seriously indeed.

    Messages from fans

    Fans can't hold press conferences, but here are just a few of the many messages sent to Al Jazeera on Sunday.

    A reader calling themselves Forget2022 said: "Refund? Forget it. You can't refund how badly people were treated.

    "You can't refund the disappointment. You can't refund the laughing and shrugs from the rude apathetic security or the heavy handed police."

    Michael Telafici from Qatar wrote: "There were hundreds in the group we were in. We were ushered from one gate to another, men, women, children.

    "I have consistently defended Qatar's winning the 2022 bid to acquaintances in the US who doubt Qatar's ability to manage such an event. This has now made me wonder."

    Finally, from Mimi: "The police came out prepared to treat ordinary people like hooligans, and well, that's almost what they got. Dangerous and irresponsible."

    Considerable excitement about Qatar 2022 has turned to considerable anger. The Asian Cup 2011 final will be remembered for a stunning goal on the pitch, and an own-goal off it.


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