By Rohith Nair and Yara Abi Nader
DOHA (Reuters) – A day after chaotic scenes and skirmishes marred the opening night of the World Cup fan festival, organisers seemed to have learned their lesson and streamlined the entry process ahead of Monday’s first game between England and Iran.
Sunday’s match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador had thousands of fans trying to enter the 40,000-capacity venue but on Monday organisers prevented them from coming in through multiple entry points to manage the flow better.
“It is good, they’ve controlled everything, because you know very well it was very crowded (yesterday). They managed well, so I am happy now – it is very free,” a fan named Kirish said.
The fan festival is being held at Al Bidda Park, a vast expanse of green space with the towering Doha skyline dominating the background.
A small crowd had already gathered around the giant screen and stage prior to kickoff as singers kept them entertained, but it quickly swelled in size minutes before kickoff.
One English fan named Dan arrived just in time for kickoff draped in an England flag after he failed to find tickets for the game at Khalifa International Stadium.
“I wrapped up some work and rushed to get here for the game,” he said.
“I tried getting tickets but there weren’t any left. An American couple told me they bought two tickets this morning, I have no idea how!”
Ten minutes into the game, with the setting sun still beating down on the back of their necks, a number of fans preferred to sit down on the tarmac and watch the game.
But they were soon back on their feet and bouncing by the time England took a 3-0 lead in the first half, waving huge English flags with renewed fervour.
The only fans who did not celebrate were a smattering of Iranians and a few Welsh supporters, who watched on with a wry smile on their faces.
Wales, who are playing at the World Cup for the first time since 1958 are in Group B with England and Iran, along with the United States.
“England have played well,” 56-year-old Welsh fan Wayne Evans begrudgingly said. “But I think we can give them a run for their money when we play them next Tuesday.”
The whole crowd let out a collective groan when a replay of Ali Beiranvand’s sickening collision with a team mate was beamed on the giant screen while several applauded as the goalkeeper was taken off on a stretcher.
Fans lining up to buy food and beverages stood in serpentine queues but they still had a good view of the giant screen.
While alcoholic beer will not be sold at Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, it is available at the fan zone, although only from 7 p.m. local time, which left several supporters watching the England v Iran game which kicked off at 4 p.m. frustrated.
“It’s a little bit different to what we’re used to, I guess, and it seems the atmosphere is a little bit flatter,” said English fan Marc Dunn.
“Yes, with everyone sober, it’s not so lively … which I guess could be a good thing for families. But compared to what we’re used to in Europe, it’s a very, very different atmosphere.”
England fans were able to celebrate a dominant 6-2 win, however. While that result left Iran fans disconsolate, Soman Salamat, a 17-year-old Iranian supporter living in Doha, was still upbeat about their prospects.
“In terms of the game, all our hearts are broken but we still have two more games (against) Wales and USA. So we’re keeping our heads up for that,” he said.
“We missed a lot of chances so if any football fan actually watches the game, it was a good game. I’m proud of our boys.”
Any supporters in downtown Doha who could not make it to the fan festival only needed to look up at the Commercial Bank skyscraper which had its entire facade lit up with the score — visible even from a mile away.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair, Yara Abi Nader and Yesim Dikman in Doha; Editing by Ken Ferris)