Khalifa International

Under the Torch, in the heart of the Aspire Zone

The field of dreams – and the story behind it

Qatar’s de facto national stadium from the time it was built back in 1976, the Khalifa International centrepieces the country’s far-reaching Aspire project to showcase and nurture sporting excellence. 

Current national coach Félix Sánchez arrived from Barcelona’s academy set-up in 2006 to be part of what would become a global initiative based in Doha and inspired by the renowned training methods in Catalonia’s capital.

His Qatar U-19 team winning the Asian title in 2014 and the seniors the Asian Cup five years later, Sánchez now oversees a World Cup squad whose key members came through the Aspire Academy at some point.

His Qatar U-19 team winning the Asian title in 2014 and the seniors the Asian Cup five years later, Sánchez now oversees a World Cup squad whose key members came through the Aspire Academy at some point.

That same year of 2006, Doha hosted the Asian Games, which generated the most dramatic transformation of the city’s urban and sporting infrastructure until the recent construction frenzy for 2022. 

A $1 billion overhaul of Doha airport, the provision of a modern public-transport network, more hotels of decent standard to accommodate officials and media, all of this came into play as Qatar threw the kitchen sink at staging the Games.

The other significant development for 2006 was Sports City, built around the Khalifa Stadium, originally a modest ground of 20,000 created to host the seven-team Gulf Cup of 1976. Since referred to as the Aspire Zone, this extensive complex forms the border between Doha proper and the separate community of Al Rayyan, part of Metropolitan Doha. 

It’s its own island, in fact. Here as well as the Khalifa International, you find a vast indoor multi-sports arena, a Venetian-themed mall containing a rink where the Qatar Ice Hockey league takes place and, beaming out 300 metres high, the glowing Aspire Tower erected as a flame-like symbol of the Asian Games.

Today it overlooks a stadium that has gone through to two major iterations, one for 2006, the other for 2022. Used for athletics in 2006 while smaller grounds hosted the football tournament, the Khalifa was already Qatar’s go-to venue for international fixtures – the Asian Games just upped the ante. 

A giant arch was installed for the fireworks display for the opening and closing ceremonies, the media facilities were modernised for the world’s press and the stadium capacity was raised to 50,000.

The more recent overhaul – the Khalifa was Qatar’s first tournament-ready stadium, back in 2017 – simply added to and embellished the work of a decade before. Beirut-based architects Dar Al Handasah had already had many years’ experience creating buildings around the Middle East by the time they were summoned here. 

For their revisit in 2014, they worked specifically on expanding the East Stand to raise the capacity from 39,500 to 45,400, designing a new cooling system and providing a canopy to complement the existing arches.

While space and logistic dictated that the venue for 2022 final be in Lusail, focus for so much new development outside Doha, Khalifa still exudes prestige.

Even before the 2010 vote that now brings the world to Qatar, Lionel Messi was bookending a showcase fixture here with a last-minute wonder goal for Argentina to beat Brazil. 

Once Dar Al Handasah had completed their work on Khalifa 3.0 to focus on the next biggest World Cup stadium, Al Bayt, this arena had a full agenda of hosting duties lined up. In 2019 alone, there was the Asian Athletics Championships, the World Athletics Championships, the Gulf Cup and the Club World Cup, won by Liverpool.

This time round, there are eight World Cup games to be played out beneath the Aspire Tower, including England’s opening fixture against Iran, Germany’s curtain-raiser against Japan and the play-off for third place. Surprisingly, no fixtures involve Qatar, unless, of course, the hosts make it all the way to the semi-final as South Korea did in 2002. In anticipation of just such an event, the interior colours match Qatar’s national flag.

Surrounded by greenery, the Khalifa International feels like it’s a public amenity, locals strolling around, perhaps heading for the gondola- or jungle-themed amusement parks, or, the Aspire Tower. There a lift whisks you up to the 47th floor and Doha’s only revolving restaurant, naturally called the Three Sixty

Part of the panoramic five-star hotel Torch Doha, it serves high-class steak and lobster dishes, coffees and mocktails. Tables by reservation only and smart-casual dress required. Four floors above, the Sky Lounge awaits guests for private events. The views are unbeatable and immediately below you’ll make out the 2022 World Cup building, shaped in the form of the four numerals from the top and to the side.

For those not party to such exclusivity, the Villaggio Mall in the same Sports City complex has plenty of affordable, family-friendly dining options, from steakhouses to Mongolian grills, and sushi spots to Indian restaurants. No alcohol, though, this is a dry ship, albeit one that’s entertainingly Venetian-themed.

The complex has also welcomed the opening of the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Divided into seven sections, it sprawls over two buildings, one adjoining the Khalifa International Stadium. 

Older football fans can cut to the chase to see the ball used by WBA to beat The Invincibles of Preston in the FA Cup final of 1888, one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history, and the one used by Pelé to score his 1,000 goal. The Activation Zone of 18 stations draws most visitors, though, including early VIP guest David Beckham.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

Sport City has its own metro station on the yellow line. There’s a separate exit for the stadium, which brings you out just inside the park complex with the stadium 200 metres ahead. 

If you’re going to the Villaggio Mall before the game, then stay on the metro to the next and last stop, Al Aziziyah. Cutting through the mall to the far end near the gondola theme park brings you out to the Aspire Tower and the west side of the stadium.

fixture list

The full schedule – who's playing and when

England and Germany make their World Cup debuts at the Khalifa International Stadium, followed by top clashes in Groups A and F, and Spain’s last game in the initial stage of the tournament. After an early match in the knock-out rounds, there’s a fortnight gap before the two losing semi-finalists bow out here.

November 21, 4pm: England-Iran (Group B)

November 23, 4pm: Germany-Japan (Group E)

November 25, 7pm: Netherlands-Ecuador (Group A)

November 27, 7pm: Croatia-Canada (Group F)

November 29, 6pm: Ecuador-Senegal (Group A)

December 1, 10pm: Japan-Spain (Group E)

December 3, 6pm: Round of 16, 1st Group A-2nd Group B

December 17, 6pm: Third-place play-off

All times are local. CET is 2hrs behind Qatar, UK 3hrs behind.