DOHA — A Friday night in the pub, the football on the big screen, the reassuring sound of glasses clinking and optimism around the national team disappearing almost as quickly as the fizzy beer.
England are in town and I have a date with the Red Lion, Doha’s only British pub and this World Cup’s worst secret.
The buzz around this bar has been building since the Qatari officials barred beer from the stadiums on the eve of the World Cup and the Daily Star highlighted it as one of a smattering of places in the city offering plentiful booze.
As you’d expect in a country with strict rules about drinking in public, it’s not easy to find, tucked on the mezzanine level of the Al Mansour Suite hotel in downtown Doha. The only thing giving it away on Friday night are the large number of England and Wales fans congregating around the entrance and a whopping two-hour wait to get in.
For those whom drinking and supporting go hand in hand like England and tournament disappointment, you can see why the wait is considered worth it. In this driest of months for fans congregating in Qatar, the bar is an oasis in the desert and incubates that precious commodity: tournament craic.
I introduce myself to bar manager Steve Morgan as a member of the media. He’s done plenty of interviews, welcomed lots of English photographers and says he’s happy for me to be there, with two rules. “If you’re negative about the bar or the World Cup, you’re permanently barred,” he says. I think he’s joking, but I can’t quite be sure.
No worries on the former, anyway, it’s exactly what it’s billed as: “Home from home”. And while it’s an England stronghold for much of the build up to the game, it’s anything but a partisan pub when you get in.
Fans of Mexico, the US, Iran, Senegal, Brazil and Canada mingle under the low ceiling, swaying to a live band that bangs out a stream of wedding classics. They do a roaring trade in t-shirts in World Cup colours and glasses moulded to look like the trophy itself. It’s all great fun until the football starts.
When I eventually get in, up the lift, ID dutifully provided at a reception desk, there’s still a few hours to kick off. Someone with an Iranian flag tied around his shoulders is trying to flog a ticket for the match while those who already have one are winding up for the big one.
“England’s on the piss and Wales are going home,” sing a group of lads in the corner. But it’s all hugs when the gang of red wall regulars give a little bit back.
At the bar, four fans with tickets for the game ordered one for the road. Or – to be precise – 12 jagerbombs at the jaw-dropping cost of £100.
The drinks deals you’re obligated to buy upon entry are a shade more reasonable – three drinks for 99 riyals (£22) or six for 175 riyals (£39.75). Heineken, Budweiser and Leffe are on tap, bottles are plentiful and there’s loads of fans sinking shots that can be as much as £15.
The authentic experience is topped off by a menu which offers fish and chips for £15.90.
I spent the night chatting to Matt and Pete, two red wall regulars who had been warned beforehand that the presence of their Wales shirts might make them targets in a bar packed with English fans.
There wasn’t the merest sniff of trouble but they had to soak up a fair bit of mockery from those on their way to the Al Bayt Stadium. They started the night downcast at Wales’ desperate defeat to Iran but perked up as England toiled in the late Doha heat. By the end we’d agreed to reconvene in Germany in 18 months for the Euros. It was that sort of night.
In truth, the game was the worst bit, a turgid, stodgy stroll through an hour and a half almost entirely devoid of drama.
The only moment of genuine concern was when my frustration got the better of me as England ceded possession yet again to a swarm of blue shirts. I felt a tap on the shoulder from the burly bouncer and feared the worse.
“Relax man, try not to stress,” he said, offering me a reassuring hug. This is England, I told him. We don’t do serene, even with a pint pot in our hand.