World Cup: 'Exceptional' Lusail Stadium hosts frenetic match in sneak peek of football's showpiece event

Lusail will host 10 games at the World Cup including the Dec 18 final. PHOTO: AFP

LUSAIL, Qatar - It is about two months before Lionel Messi and Neymar arrive in the Middle East for the World Cup but at least one of the lush green stages they will weave their magic on, has been set for them.

In a preview of football's showpiece event, which kicks off on Nov 20, fans were treated to a thrilling teaser at the Lusail Stadium on Friday, when Egyptian side Zamalek and Saudi champions Al Hilal clashed for the Lusail Super Cup.

Lusail, located roughly 15km north of Doha, will host 10 games at the World Cup including the Dec 18 final, with the first being Messi's Argentina against Saudi Arabia in a Group C match on Nov 22. Neymar and his Brazilian band of entertainers will also play two Group G games here.

The Super Cup match was meant as a stress test for the venue's ability to host a large crowd - 77,575 of its 80,000 seats were filled - and the host nation's readiness in facilitating visitors from abroad, with many from neighbouring Saudi Arabia making the trip over.

Up to 1.2 million people are expected to arrive for the World Cup and Friday's match also served as a trial for its much-touted metro network, which will be the main mode of transport at the tournament.

The game was a highlight for many during the weekend in Qatar - which takes place across Friday and Saturday - and the jubilant fans turned up in force, shuffling and singing songs along lines that snaked for hundreds of metres around the perimeter of the estimated 45-hectare facility.

While the night temperature was a stifling 34 deg C - and truthfully felt hotter because of humidity which exceeded 70 per cent - conditions in the stands were bearable thanks to the solar-powered cooling technology that features in many World Cup venues here, even if it started becoming a little muggy as seats began filling up.

In any case, the temperature in Qatar during the tournament will drop to a far more comfortable level, said to be mid-20 deg C.

Before the Super Cup match, a mini-concert by Egyptian popstar Amr Diab whipped the largely Arab crowd into a frenzy, which carried over as the players stepped out onto the pitch.

The players fed off their energy and delivered a pulsating first half of football. Ex-Manchester United man Odion Ighalo's opener for Al Hilal in the 18th minute was met with a thunderous roar from most in the stadium, before Zamalek equalised through Ahmed Sayed in the 33rd.

The 1-1 score remained until the full-time whistle, and ultimately a penalty shootout - and heroics from Al Hilal goalkeeper Abdullah Al Mayouf who made two saves - separated the sides.

Al Mayouf, who had previously retired from the Saudi national team, said he has spoken to the national selectors about a possible return for the World Cup. The 35-year-old gushed about Lusail, saying: "The pitch was very beautiful and the air conditioning (on pitchside which lowers temperatures on the playing surface to about 20 deg C) was very much suitable for playing. I hope it will be like this, or be even better, at the World Cup."

Al Hilal coach Ramon Diaz, a former Argentina striker who scored against Brazil at the 1982 World Cup, described Lusail as an "exceptional" venue and wished Qatar "every success" hosting the World Cup.

Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the supreme committee for delivery and legacy, said on Qatari sports network beIN before kickoff: "I have to say it's an emotional moment, a great moment, for us. It's a culmination of a 13-year journey. Dare I say it, the final milestone. And now we're into the final bend into the World Cup."

As Ramon, Al Mayouf and Co make an exit stage left, all that appears left - as far as the World Cup is concerned - is for the lead performers to now come into the frame.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.