England face the prospect of playing their first match of the World Cup in a stadium with empty seats, with tickets still available for their fixture against Iran on Monday.
England play Iran in Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium, which has a capacity of 40,000 according to Fifa’s official guide. That makes Khalifa the smallest stadium for an England opening World Cup game since 1990, when they played Ireland in a sold-out Stadio Sant’Elia in Cagliari. Even so, it seems likely that tickets will remain unsold.
Estimates suggest that between 3,000 and 4,000 England supporters are expected to travel to Qatar during the group stages, although they have been thin on the ground around central Doha. Several England supporters, three wearing Newcastle United shirts, came to England’s training base on Friday morning in the hope of glimpsing the players, but were left disappointed.
The total number of England fans coming to the World Cup is unknown due to the expat community in the nation – more than 22,000 Britons reside in Qatar, with many more living in nearby Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman. Those living in Qatar are able to use a separate ticket portal to foreign visitors.
But, as of 48 hours before the opening game of the tournament between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium north of Doha, there were tickets available for 14 of the group matches on the portal for non-Qatari customers. That included three of the home nations’ matches: England vs Iran, Wales vs USA and Wales vs Iran.
Tickets are available via three methods. The first is Fifa’s official sales portal, which lists seven games as having available tickets. That includes England’s first match on Monday, for which any registered user can buy six tickets on Row S, Block 603 of the Khalifa Stadium. The seats are not consecutive and cost 800 Qatari Riyals each, or roughly £185. Other matches on that platform with tickets listed as available were Uruguay vs Korea and Japan vs Spain.
Fifa also offers a resale platform, where supporters with unwanted tickets can sell them on at face value through an official source. Fifa Ticketing charges a resale fee each to the original ticket purchaser and the resale ticket purchaser, if the tickets are successfully sold. That equals the greater of either two Qatari Riyals or five per cent of the price paid by the original buyer and resale buyer.
On that resale platform, tickets are sold quickly and so only a snapshot is possible. Understandably, the tickets listed below the Category 1 price – 800 Riyals – are more popular. But on Friday evening, it was possible to buy tickets (at least at the highest price) for 14 matches on the resale platform. They included Croatia vs Canada, Switzerland vs Cameroon and Ecuador vs Senegal.
Finally, there is an official match ticketing centre at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center in West Bay, among Doha’s cluster of skyscrapers. On Friday evening, the ticketing centre displayed a sign advertising tickets for three games, including England vs Iran. Again, these were priced at 800 Riyals.
Ashley Brown, the Football Supporters’ Association head of supporter engagement, told the BBC last month that he is certain that England supporters are not travelling in similar numbers to previous World Cups due to well-documented factors: cost, timing and concerns about the tournament as a whole.
Mr Brown says England fans are not travelling in the same numbers as previous tournaments because of the costs involved, while the timing of the World Cup – outside of the usual summer school holidays – will “impact the ability of families to attend”.
Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s president, announced in October that 2.9 million tickets had been sold for the tournament, which would fall slightly short of previous editions if that figure held. Four years ago in Russia, 3.03 million tickets were sold and that was lower than 2014, 2010 and 2006.