After the joy that erupted on the streets of Doha following the successful World Cup bid last month, it saddened me to see Qatar fans abandon their team and leave the stadium nearly 15 minutes before the end of the opening match of the Asian Cup.
The spectacular Khalifa Stadium had been packed with more than 37,000 men and women, most of them in traditional Qatari dress, for Friday’s game against Uzbekistan that was being covered worldwide, from the New York Times newspaper in the United States to broadcast networks in Australia.
This was not because Qatar v Uzbekistan comes close to being on most of the planet’s radar, but because sport’s main event will come to the Gulf state in 2022.
A sceptical foreign media wants to know if Qatar can host a major tournament (it can), if the weather will be a problem (maybe, maybe not), and whether the football team might stand up to the likes of Argentina and Spain in 11 years’ time (unlikely, but it’s a minor point).
They are also looking at the fans. And the vast majority of the Qatar supporters left as soon as their team went 2-0 down.
It happens, to a lesser extent, every weekend in leagues around the world.
“We can see you sneaking out” is a common chant by away supporters as home crowds react to a bad scoreline by leaving the ground early. Perhaps that’s what the small section of Uzbeks were singing, in Russian.
But in Doha, the 2022 bid has changed everything. The stark fact is that much of the rest of the world thinks that Qatar doesn’t deserve the World Cup. And one of the reasons is that people don’t believe that there are enough real football fans among Qatar’s population of just 1.6 million.
That assumption is now there to be proved right or wrong.
One bad performance doesn’t make a bad team. Qatar probably are one, but if their own fans can’t have a bit of blind faith then who can?
And where is a decent World Cup team going to come from if not from the people from Qatar? Well, one answer is South America, as demonstrated by current players Sebastian Soria and Fabio Cesar.
A selling point of a World Cup here is that it will boost football culture in Qatar and the Middle East.
If someone scoops up his sons and daughters and leaves the match early, is it more or less likely that they’ll grow up with a passion for the national team? Or dream of pulling on the maroon shirt?
When I started going to watch my club, Wigan Athletic, on the terraces of a crumbling ground that was a neanderthal version of the Khalifa Stadium, we got between 1,000 and 4,000 fans at each match – including away support.
Now that we’re in the English Premier League and sometimes nearly fill our 25,000-seater stadium for matches against Manchester United and Arsenal, there is the natural accusation that most of those fans are there to watch the other team.
From the evidence of the Asian Cup opener, that could happen when Germany, England and Brazil arrive for the World Cup.
This tiny country has made history in bringing the World Cup to its shores. I hope that last night was a one-off because I’m excited about Qatar 2022, and the outburst of Arab celebration in December was an inspiring sight.
But unless Qatar players make an unlikely surge to greatness, fans will have to show that support means support in victory and in defeat.
It starts against China at Khalifa Stadium on January 12.