DOHA: It is rare to see Doha streets almost empty of vehicles, especially on a Thursday night.
But this happened two days ago as people thronged some popular spots or stayed at home, their eyes glued to television screens, to watch the launch of the biggest sporting event of the year.
The Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo erupted in cheers as 61,600 fans applauded the opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup, headlined by a performance by a trio of big stars: Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte.
Though more than 11,000 kilotmetres away from the venue, Qatar joined in the celebrations and World Cup fever was in the air as people here got hooked up to the month-long football frenzy. Most citizens and residents here are crazy about football and will be keenly following the action at the mega sporting event over the coming weeks.
Souq Waqif and Aspire Park were two of the major venues where hundreds of people gathered to watch the opening ceremony as well as the exciting opening game between Croatia and hosts and five-time champions Brazil.
“It was awesome! I have always watched the World Cup, and judging from the colourful and vibrant opening ceremony, I can say this is one of the best,” said football fan Gregory, clad in a Brazil T-shirt.
Gregory, along with his colleagues, had joined the multitude of football fans in front of a gigantic screen installed in Souq Waqif.
“Football, more than any other sport, unites people. At least for a few weeks, we forget our differences and just enjoy the excitement of the games,” said Mohammed Abdullah, another football fan.
While many were happy to watch the event in the comfort of their homes, others headed to hotels, restaurants and cafes that have set up match screening venues, though not just for love of sport.
As in other parts of the world, the World Cup is a highly commercialised event here. Some cafes are levying additional charges on customers who want to watch the matches.
“It was a full house. My friends and I had to sit on the tables,” said Hamad, who watched the game in a coffee shop in Muaizer after paying a QR10 entry fee.
“But if you get shisha, entry is free. But the show was really worth the fee,” Hamad said.
While some cafes charge a nominal sum, high-end restaurants and cafes that serve shisha are charging up to QR90. World Cup souvenirs and memorabilia of varying prices are also on sale in different parts of the country, from small souqs to big malls.
Sena Rath, Assistant Food and Beverage Manager of Radisson Blu Hotel Doha, said the World Cup opening ceremony saw an unprecedented influx of guests to Shehrazad, a popular sports bar at the hotel.
“We had to control the guests, who came in huge numbers,” said Rath, adding that they were not charging any entry fee, unlike other hotels.
The venue, which has indoor and outdoor areas, screens three football matches every night and they also have special promotions.
Rath said the World Cup would definitely spur business in the coming days, going by the number of people who came to watch the opening ceremony and game.
Champions at Renaissance Doha also attracted a large crowd of World Cup revellers on Thursday night, according to Daniel, the manager.
“It was fully booked. We had around 800 guests at the Copacabana beach party,” he said.
For a real Brazilian feel, Champions was converted into a beach with real sand, and guests enjoyed watching the games projected on 40-inch screens around the area.
Daniel expects increased revenue in the coming days as World Cup fever goes up.
During Ramadan, the screening would be done in a Ramadan tent to be set up in the hotel’s ballroom.
The hotels that are showing football matches every day include Sharq Village and Spa, La Cigale, InterContinental Doha, Oryx Rotana Doha, Intercontinental Doha-The City, Four Seasons Hotel Doha, Crowne Plaza, Kempinski Residences and Suites, Ezdan Hotel, Hilton Hotel, St Regis Doha, Ritz-Carlton Doha and Holiday Villa Hotel and Residences.
Excitement over World Cup 2014 has also fuelled a surge in sale of goods related to football. Shops in Qatar have seen a sharp rise in demand for lookalike jerseys of teams playing in the World Cup, fan T-shirts, training kits, branded footballs, bags and caps.
“The influence of the World Cup is easily visible in Qatar and it has led to a jump in the sale of items related to football. We have witnessed about a 25 percent rise in the sale of jerseys of teams playing in the World Cup, fan T-shirts, branded footballs, bags, training kits and caps in the last one month, compared to the previous month,” said Hadi Iskandarani, director of Galaxy Sport.
“Though the World Cup began on Thursday, the craze for the tournament began months before because of the wide media coverage,” said Iskandarani.
Football is probably the world’s most popular sport, with nearly half the world’s population, well over three billion spectators, expected to watch 32 teams play a total of 67 matches during the tournament.
The magnitude of the World Cup craze can be gauged from the fact that demand for football-related goods is coming from all age groups. “The customers, who are demanding football-related items, are from all age groups. From students to professionals, everyone wants to enjoy the World Cup,” said Iskandarani.
“The phenomenon of rise in the sale of football-related items is not new for Qatar. In the past also, we have seen the World Cup leading to a rise in sales of football-related items,” said Mohamed Musthafa, managing director of Sportwell, who has around 25 years of experience in the sports industry.
“Football is now a global sport and the world over the craze for this sport is growing. In Qatar also, the craze for football is increasing,” said Musthafa.
Even in February, when National Sport Day is celebrated in Qatar, demand for football gear goes up.
Telecommunications companies have also rolled out promotions for customers to stay up to date on the matches.
Vodafone subscribers are receiving calls from a three-digit number. Once a subscriber answers the call, a recorded voice says highlights of the matches can be received by activating a service for QR15.
Postpaid customers currently in Brazil to watch the games can update their loved ones in Qatar at low roaming rates until July 20. They can make calls to Qatar, receive calls from Qatar or send text messages for QR1 and access the Internet for 50Dhs per megabyte.
Meanwhile, beIN Sports channel has announced it is going to broadcast 22 World Cup 2014 matches in its open channel for football fans in Qatar and the MENA region.
“It’s my pleasure to obtain the satisfaction of football fans in MENA and this is one of our principles in beIN Sports channel, and this group of matches will be well selected,” said beIN Sports Chairman Nasser Al Khelaifi.
The said matches will be aired via the channel broadcast through Suhail Sat 1.