SINGAPORE - Under the Singapore skies, stars flew in Qatar. It was a lovely way to usher in a World Cup. In Al Bayt Stadium, roughly 6,000km away, footballers hustled. At an open-air screening at the Singapore Recreation Club, beer cans clinked at midnight on Sunday and a man dressed as a sheikh exclaimed, “Welcome to Qatar”. Regardless of the bans, this Cup promises to be intoxicating.
On a section of the Padang, fittingly a field on which lies the imprint of a million football boots, a small crowd of 55-odd watched Ecuador tussle with the hosts, Qatar. Finally, football was being played, not tiresome politics.
In less than three minutes, a goal was scored by Ecuador and then disallowed, and chatter quickly broke out. In the 16th minute, Ecuador captain Enner Valencia, layered in sweat, tapped in a penalty and the crowd roared at the Padang. It takes only a handful of fans to spark an atmosphere.
Businessman Chris Mok, 59, who has been watching the Cup since the 1980s, grinned and said of his attendance at the SRC gathering: “It’s better than shouting at the walls at home and waking the neighbours.” Just like teams, fans search for camaraderie.
At Toa Payoh West Community Club, where roughly 60 people watched, Mr Edmund Foo, 53, an Argentina supporter since 1978 when La Albiceleste won the Cup at home, turned up with his 12-year-old daughter Cheyenne.
“I go to the screenings,” said Mr Foo, “even though I have cable at home because I like the spirit of togetherness at such events.” Cheyenne, he said, knew little of football, but he wanted her “to experience such a live event”. Football is a game, but also an heirloom to be passed down.
Ecuador is more famous for its Panama hats than its football and Qatar for its falcons which dive almost as fast as strikers. The South Americans are ranked No. 44 in the world and the desert nation No. 50. In a snobbish football world, this might be called an appetiser, but the Qataris especially would not care. For them to play in a Cup is history. Or as Spanish tourist Pedro Baute at Chijmes put it, this Cup is an “emotional” business.
The late hour scarcely mattered because time means nothing in football. It was noon in Caracas, 1.30am in Alice Springs and 3pm in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland, and surely some TV sets everywhere were tuned to football. At Chijmes, from a single vantage spot, I could watch five screens of various sizes. I felt as the planet must, surrounded by football.
This 92-year old Cup remains, for all its multiple flaws, the planet’s connective tissue. Borders are irrelevant here. Ecuador’s coach is an Argentinian, Gustavo Alfaro; Qatar is managed by a Spaniard, Felix Sanchez; and on this night they were being hailed by Singaporeans. As the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano once wrote in his book, Football In Sun And Shadow: “When good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
On a colourful night – Qatar wore maroon, Ecuador yellow and a local fan a blue-and-white Messi shirt – the mood lifted. In a turbulent world, a mere Cup can’t heal but it can temporarily bind and distract. “It’s a relief,” said Mr Mok. Added England fan Vijay Kumar, “it’s a positive distraction”.
As the match stretched on, a new day unfolded in Singapore. Qatar’s weather has been much discussed but Ecuador literally translates to the Republic of The Equator. On opening night, they won 2-0. One might say they brought too much heat.
- Additional reporting by David Lee