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Letter from Doha: Shisha bongs, a lighter euphoria and Robbie Keane the Qatar TV hero

Gavin Cummiskey spends the day (and night) in Souq Waqif, Doha’s main marketplace, encountering people from every walk of life that is able to afford a World Cup in Qatar

There is a Five Points feel to Souq Waqif, without the threat of violence and pickpocketing that pervaded lower Manhattan’s 19th-century melting pot.

Al Souq (the marketplace) draws all World Cup disciples but instead of roaming drunkards and pitch battles, Islam’s sensible rejection of alcohol delivers a much lighter euphoria.

Scene: Lebanese restaurant on the main thoroughfare. A piece of prime real estate is offered up by vacating New York Times and London Independent correspondents. It’s Saturday lunchtime and the media are marching on Lusail for Argentina versus Mexico but our laptop is closed for 24 hours.

Two young fellas from Oman, Ahmed and Ahmed, in matching Argentina shirts, bring up Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Germany in 2002. That’s what being Irish means to them. Keane is in Qatar as part of BeIN Sports’ coverage, but it is his breakthrough on the global stage in Japan that stands the test of time.


The shisha bong is out as Doha’s tiny cats circle our table, attracted by a delicious mixed platter of lamb, beef, hummus and moutabal.

The Omanis abandoned their trip to Lusail when a tout sought 2,000 riyal (€510) to see Messi. Moroccans, Saudis, Argentinians, Mexicans and Brazilians amble past our table.

Robert Lewandowski finally scores for Poland at a World Cup as the Saudi game comes via Ahmed’s iPhone. Penalty! VAR gets a kicking in Arabic, English and Polish, but Wojciech Szczesny’s double save has thousands of Saudis moping about the Souq, shots of caffeine unable to drown their sorrows following the 2-0 loss.

A couple from Washington DC settle in for a toke of hookah. The guy is Iranian, his parents left the country when the Ayatollah seized power in 1979, and like everyone else, for the World Cup, they paid through the nose for tickets and an $800-a-night villa, built for them alone, as it will be bulldozed after the tournament.

I pull up the front of Saturday’s Irish Times, and they swallow hard, having encountered the lady pictured with blood tears and an Iranian heart-shaped flag painted on her face. The national shirt she was holding, with number 22 and the name of Mahsa Amini, was confiscated by a Qatari policeman.

We ramble down the back streets, but it’s completely different to Souqs in other Arab countries. The smell of hash is absent for one, with next to no hustlers or haggling. We are drawn to purple neon lights above a tall white building that Google Maps calls the Infinity Rooftop Bar, where I am introduced to thirsty Iranian cousins from California whose parents also “ran for the airport” in 1979.

Who you up for Tuesday then?

“USA, f**k Iran,” says property portfolio cousin.

“Iran,” says restaurateur cousin, “We are Jewish, but I am still Iranian.”

Painfully, they turn the tables, making me explain Brexit so I, foolishly, recount Irish history from the plantations of Ulster to The Troubles, back around to The Good Friday agreement forcing a trade border in the Irish Sea.

“Wait, if Northern Ireland and Ireland are the same island, where’s Scotland?”

I remind them of the pub rule that still holds firm in Hell’s Kitchen: no talking about religion, politics or race.

It really should apply at this World Cup.

Over in BBC land, another Californian – Jürgen Klinsmann – has got himself in a spot of bother over Iran’s “gamesmanship” as Ian Rush finally says something memorable on TV, seemingly endorsing the notorious German diver’s crass behaviour by asking “with a European ref would it have been different?”

Word gets around and the Beeb must know they did wrong when Carlos Queiroz, the Iran manager who attacked the Iranian fan protest last week, can claim the moral high ground over Klinsmann.

Saturday ends with an Irish twist after Lionel Messi squeezes Argentina past Mexico; Robbie Keane in the John Giles hot seat, albeit on the Qatari media network, is a predictable evolution for Ireland’s record goal scorer. “When I was at the 2002 World Cup, I was 21 and I scored as well,” Keane noted after Enzo Fernández made it 2-0, “and that’s still the greatest moment, for me.” To be fair, his Ibaraki finish wasn’t too shabby.

On Friday’s shuttle home from Al Bayt, I asked a Mexican journalist why his football-obsessed country of 130 million people always come up short at World Cups? “Because there are so many Mexicans in the team,” he replied before pulling his sombrero over his eyes and passing out.