The field of dreams – and the story behind it
The nearest World Cup venue to Doha’s Hamad International Airport, Al Thumama opened during a flurry of stadium unveilings a year or so before the World Cup. The occasion was the Emir Cup, a showcase event in Qatar’s domestic football calendar, usually held in May but pushed back to October 22, 2021, partly because of Covid restrictions that spring, partly to provide the arena with a fitting celebration for the inauguration.
Those flying into Doha by day will fully appreciated the symbolism at play here, particularly returning locals gazing out of the window. Designed by Qatari architect Ibrahim Jaidah, head of the Doha-based Arab Engineering Bureau (AEB), the Al Thumama Stadium has been fashioned in the form of a traditional men’s skullcap, a taqiyah.
Worn five times a day for prayers, it has similar a function but different names across the Muslim world, such as a gahfiyah elsewhere in the Gulf. It underlines the host nation’s acute awareness that it is staging a first World Cup in and for the Arab region.
With more than 50 years of experience and 1,500 projects under its bet, as Qatar’s first architectural and engineering consultancy AEB was more than conscious of local context when creating this groundbreaking structure.
The organisers, too. For the Emir Cup game, music, dance and mime shows greeted visitors on the approach to the stadium as they stepped off the hundreds of buses that had taken them from the nearest metro station, Free Zone, on the main Airport Road.
Along the so-called Last Mile, volunteers armed with megaphones and foam-hand arrows pointed the streaming crowds through what seemed like stretches of empty desert to the arena – this was October 2021, remember, almost 13 months to the day before the first World Cup game here, between Senegal and the Netherlands on November 22.
In keeping with the occasion, a cultural zone was set up alongside the stadium displaying traditional Qatari crafts and artefacts. In another nice touch, like little wishes dangling from a tree, on stands around the concourse fans hung their own gahfiyahs, inscribed with their own hopes for the showcase match to follow.
There’s every reason to suspect that something similar is being planned for each of the eight games here, including Canada against Morocco and one quarter-final. The stadium’s name, by the way, refers to a local type of tree and also the name of the otherwise featureless district here in south Doha.
With the Emir of Qatar in attendance to present the cup, an elaborate opening ceremony gave way to Al Sadd versus Al Rayyan, and manager Xavi against his counterpart Laurent Blanc. In a game of penalties, Santi Cazorla converted his to equalise for Al Sadd in normal time, and likely Iran World Cup squad member Shojae Khalilzadeh missed his in the shoot-out for Al Rayyan.
Star of the show, though, was the setting. Its mish-mash exterior copying the patterns of woven fabric used by taqiyah makers, Al Thumama wowed the full house of 40,000 inside, too. Its circular form perceptible inside and out, Ibrahim Jaidah’s award-winning arena takes the headwear idea and runs with it, as the canopy protects spectators from the sun the same as the taqiyah does its wearer.
Two of the matches here kick off at 4pm local time, when heat and humidity will still be high. The stadium’s cooling system runs on solar energy. The round hole in the middle of roof should allow for glimpses of the moon during evening games – a fiery clash in 1998, USA-Iran is scheduled to kick off at 10pm.
With the low, mostly enclosed canopy, noise and atmosphere here should be a given. Certainly, things got pretty raucous, if good-natured, for Al Sadd’s Emir Cup triumph, and Qatar’s Arab Cup semi-final defeat to Algeria a couple of months afterwards.
For Emir Cup night, along with outlets selling standard soft drinks and snacks inside the ground, the old-school van used by Doha-wide burger chain Exit 55 was a popular option outside the stadium.
After the last game is played at Al Thumama on December 10, the top 20,000 seats will be taken away and donated to a willing recipient somewhere. A park will be created around it and there’s even talk of a boutique hotel, although there are currently few amenities in the surrounding area apart from the Bsquare Mall, modest by Doha standards.
For those staying in the Fan Village Cabins Free Zone the other side of the airport road from the Free Zone metro station, Al Thumama couldn’t be more convenient.
Going to the stadium – tips and timings
Take the red metro from central Doha to Free Zone. Once you arrive, hundreds of buses will be waiting to take you to the stadium. As people will be going to the game at different times, there’s not so much of a crush after the final whistle when everyone’s leaving at the same time.
Remember that you’ll be in an air-conditioned environment for two hours within the stadium, and it might get quite chilly in the long queue for shuttle buses afterwards. A long-sleeved top for later use is probably not a bad idea.
The full schedule – who's playing and when
Several fancied teams play at the Al Thumama Stadium, including Spain, the Netherlands, Senegal and Belgium, while fans of Qatar, Costa Rica, Morocco, Iran, USA and Canada should bring plenty of atmosphere to this unusual arena. The stadium bows out of the schedule with a quarter-final tie.
November 21, 7pm: Senegal-Netherlands (Group A)
November 23, 7pm: Spain-Costa Rica (Group E)
November 25, 4pm: Qatar-Senegal (Group A)
November 27, 4pm: Belgium-Morocco (Group F)
November 29, 10pm: Iran-USA (Group B)
December 1, 6pm: Canada-Morocco (Group F)
December 4, 6pm: Round of 16, 1st Group D-2nd Group C
December 10, 6pm: QF, Winner Match 55-Winner Match 56
All times are local. CET is 2hrs behind Qatar, UK is 3hrs.