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COVID hangover set to cut Aussie fan contingent at Qatar World Cup

Australia fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia Source: Getty Images

Australia, assuming they qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, will be playing in front of fewer fans than followed them to Russia in 2018, according to a Green and Gold Army travel chief.

The reason? Expected ongoing repercussions and restrictions of the still-simmering COVID-19 pandemic.

Including the Fanatics, the GGA are leaders in organised Aussie support abroad.

But Kevin Pollard, their tour leader, has crunched the numbers and believes the fallout from the global plague will likely result in fewer Aussies on the ground in Qatar.

Pollard postulates there will be around 2000 in and around Doha, substantially less than the raucous 6000 who swarmed over Russia, the eighth highest invading army of any nation.

Numbers peaked in 2006 when 10,000-plus Australians pilgrimaged to Germany to watch the Socceroos reach the last 16.

There were more than 5000 green and gold followers in South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014.

“This third COVID wave that’s now hitting will put a lot of people off travelling (even taking into account the ongoing vaccine rollouts) and I think the tournament will certainly be down on numbers across the board,” said Pollard.

“Australia was one of the best-supported nations in Russia but I suspect we won’t see those sorts of figures in Qatar, even though they’re augmenting hotel accommodation with tent cities in the desert (for numbers in excess of 30,000).”

There are even grandiose plans to house fans in cruise liners moored in a specially constructed dry dock, their base at the only World Cup in history where supporters can theoretically attend every single game, starting with five per day in the group stage in stadiums no more than 30 minutes apart.

For the wealthy, pitch-side suites have been etched into the upper concourse of the new Al Bayt Stadium in the northern city of Al Khor.

Each of the 96 suites boasts a king-sized bed that can be transformed into a sofa, allowing rooms to be converted into Sky Boxes on match days.

Over a million foreign supporters flocked to Russia, turning the country into a blazing kaleidoscope of colour and camaraderie.

Pollard, though, expects those numbers to dip to around 350,000 in Qatar in November-December 2022, where the parties will still rage with beer on tap in the usually predominantly dry Muslim nation.

“I think you’ll see all supporters will need to have been vaccinated,” he added.

“Fans will also be able to have side trips to Abu Dhabi and Dubai as part of the experience ... they’re only 45-minute flights away.

“The option is there (in the group stage) to go to every match, with the first game at 10 am and the last kicking off at 10 pm.”

Pre-COVID there was a looming shortage of hotel accommodation in the Gulf State to cater for the influx, with only 30 per cent of fans expected to get rooms and the rest shoe-horned into tent cities and up to 13 cruise ships.

That, however, no longer looks to be the case.

“There’s definitely no shortage of accommodation now,” added Pollard.

“Vaccine passports will be necessary but there may potentially be some issues there in terms of which ones will be accepted by authorities ... whether it’s some or all.

“If it’s say a Pfizer jab you’ve had can you still go? What’s the paperwork going to be like?

“One way or other, a vaccine is going to be like a visa.”

Table-toppers Australia face Nepal, hosts Kuwait, Taiwan and Jordan to round off Group B qualifying in their June hub in the Middle East ahead of the final phase en route to Qatar.