By ISABEL DEBRE
LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Qatar’s World Cup is the most compact in history, with all eight stadiums radiating from the capital city in a country smaller than the U.S. state of Connecticut and the two farthest stadiums barely 41 miles (66 kilometers) apart.
That led to a question during the tournament’s group stage: Can a fan actually go to all four matches in a single day? On Monday, I decided to find out.
FIRST MATCH – CAMEROON VS SERBIA
After downing two large coffees, my odyssey began. It was 11:22 a.m. and I had over an hour and a half until the first game: Cameroon versus Serbia with a 1 p.m. kickoff at Al Janoub Stadium, located about 19 miles (30 kilometers) and a 90 minute ride south from my hotel in central Doha.
I took Doha’s brand new metro, free for World Cup ticket holders, to the stadium. The underground tunnel spit me out onto the city’s bright desert outskirts. It was so hot — 32 degrees Celsius or nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit — that you understand why this tournament had to start in November, another first for the World Cup. Security guards clad in neon vests whisked us onto buses.
Despite the teeming crowds, it was a smooth ride to the gates. “Stadium, this way!” the guards chanted in unison, a tune that has formed a hypnotic soundtrack to this World Cup. It was 12:35 p.m. The match was starting soon.
When Cameroon scored the first goal, the crowd went wild. But their fast start faded as Serbia fired back with two goals. Then a third. Cameroon scored a second time. Then a third! This was no normal game. I was riveted. The match was tied, 3-3.
But I had a tough choice. If I wanted to make Ghana versus South Korea at 4 p.m. in Al Rayyan — 17 miles (27 kilometers) back north — I had to get out of there. Fast. I bolted at the 80th minute, just as Cameroon’s Georges-Kevin N’Koudou took a corner kick.
There was just an hour between games and the metro to Education City Stadium would take over two full hours. There was no way I’d make it in time.
SECOND MATCH – SOUTH KOREA VS GHANA
I pounded the pavement and hailed a cab instead. Fans choked the roads with traffic. It was an anxious 40 minutes in the car. When I arrived at Education City Stadium it was 3:51 p.m. I sprinted through an entrance for journalists, as Korean and Ghanaian fans settled in their seats. When I reached the stands, the kickoff countdown sounded out: “Three, two, one!”
The Ghanaians sang constantly. Red-clad Korea fans beat giant drums and jumped up and down with unyielding loyalty, even as Ghana scored twice.
The action picked up in the second half as Korea scored off two headers back-to-back. Ghana scored a third goal.
As much as I wanted to get swept up in the color and noise, I kept checking traffic on my phone. At the 75th minute, with Ghana leading 3-2, I forced myself out of the stadium and sprinted to the metro before it could become the chokepoint it often does after games — not even knowing who won.
The frenzied Ghanaians rejoicing in the station told me everything about the final score. The metro train could have been a night club. Afrobeat music blared. Annan-Mettle Ebenezer, a 36-year-old security guard from Ghana, cut loose in dance as his friends cheered him on.
“We were the best! Our strength, our muscles!” he shouted, moved by the moment in a way you rarely see outside the World Cup.
THIRD MATCH – BRAZIL VS SWITZERLAND
I made it to Stadium 974, located near Doha’s Hamad International Airport and named both for Qatar’s international telephone code and the 974 shipping containers composing it that will be disassembled after the World Cup. I’d timed this well, with 15 minutes to get to my seat ahead of the 7 p.m. kickoff. Brazilian stragglers in yellow and blue wigs hurried to the entrance, their excitement palpable.
Unlike the last two, this game lacked excitement. After an hour, no goal had been scored. Brazil’s first try was disallowed for offside, frustrating fans.
At the 75th minute, I thought I wouldn’t miss anything. As I rushed out of the stadium and onto the street in the dying minutes of the match, I heard the crowd burst into hysterics. Echoing behind me was unmistakable roar of a World Cup goal.
FOURTH MATCH – PORTUGAL VS URUGUAY
I felt crushed to have missed it. But there was no time for regret. Lusail Stadium, the final destination hosting Portugal versus Uruguay, was still 12 miles (20 kilometers) and an hour’s metro ride away.
In the train, elbows pressed into strangers’ torsos, heads squeezed under armpits. I wasn’t the only one trying to make both matches.
Rodrigo Gonzalez Cejas, a 42-year-old Argentine lawyer on the metro, said he didn’t mind missing Brazil’s last-minute goal. It was more important, he said, to see as many matches as possible.
He said he has frequently made it to three matches a day at this World Cup, leaving in the final minutes and running for his life to the next destination. I told him of my experiment and tried to understand why he put himself through such a grueling routine. “I love football,” Gonzalez Cejas replied simply, then rushed out of the train.
I was exhausted, my feet dragging. According to my phone, I’d walked just about nine miles (15 kilometers). But the sight of thousands upon thousands of spirited fans from all over the world converging on the gleaming stadium revived me.
With the thought that I had nowhere to run to next — other than my hotel bed long after midnight — I absorbed the atmosphere and stayed until the end to see Portugal beat Uruguay 2-0 to advance to the round of 16.
It is possible to see four World Cup matches in one day in Qatar. But in the future, I think I’ll stick to just one.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.