The day after Canada’s World Cup opener, defenseman Kamal Miller was still in awe of the loud and proud Canadian contingent at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
The crowd of 40,432 was filled with Canadians celebrating their team’s return to the men’s soccer showcase after a 36-year absence.
“It was amazing,” says Miller. “Also surprising, just to see the amount of travelers we had and the amount of Canadian flags. It was hard to spot the Belgian fans.
“They immediately carried us throughout the game. From the first time we stepped onto the field, to the warm-up reception, ‘O Canada’ rang and echoed throughout the stadium. It gave us all goosebumps. And it felt like a home game, honestly — we felt like we had that 12th man. And the crowd definitely did their part to push us throughout the game.”
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Added coach John Herdman: “They were brilliant.”
And resourceful to plan the journey of more than 10,000 kilometers to Doha.
After a 1-0 loss to second-ranked Belgium in the top flight, fans’ next chance to cheer on the team comes on Sunday, when 41st-ranked Canada takes on No. 12 Croatia at Khalifa Stadium. A loss and Canada will be eliminated from advancing from the preliminary round.
READ MORE: Canada loses 1-0 to Belgium at World Cup
Even without a team to support, Canadians have long been enthusiastic participants in the men’s World Cup. Canada was the top non-participating FIFA member association in terms of ticket sales at the 2010 tournament in South Africa and ranked in the top 10 in Brazil in 2014.
In 2010, Canada ranked seventh among all countries – participating or not – in terms of ticket sales for the country of residence at 17,493. In 2014, the figure was 22,942, good for 11th place in world sales. Four years ago in Russia, Canada was 17th at 18,131.
Global Affairs Canada estimates this World Cup will draw 20,000 to 25,000 Canadians to Qatar.
Canadian soccer fans head to Qatar for World Cup
There are several ways to get tournament tickets, with Canadians benefiting this time from an invite to the party.
For matches involving Canada, Canadians had access to eight per cent of the stadium’s “purchasable quota” – what remains when tickets allocated to FIFA, sponsors and the media, among others, are taken out.
Fans can also take a chance through FIFA’s global ticket lottery.
The Canada allocation covers what FIFA calls the PMA (participating member association) Football Community Allocation and PMA Supporters Allocation.
At Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the Canadian soccer community — including the team’s so-called friends and family — was behind the Canadian bench. Others, many from the Voyageurs supporters group, were in a bank of seats in a pumped-up corner on the opposite side.
“They’re really looking for that atmosphere where you’ll feel the country is behind you,” Sandra Gage, Canada Soccer’s chief marketing officer, said of FIFA’s stadium ticket blueprint.
Soccer fans in Edmonton gather to cheer on Canada in team’s World Cup opener
Herdman had his wife and two children two rows behind him at the Belgium game on Wednesday, and later recounted how he turned and locked eyes with 18-year-old son Jay, a New Zealand youth international (he was born there while Herdman in New Zealand) when Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio smothered Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne.
“It was a great moment to share that moment with my son,” the Canada coach said.
“You realize the impact it has on people,” he added.
“My wife showed us pictures of the fans leaving the stadium. I mean it goes to great memories. I am privileged to be a part of it.”
Same for Miller, who had tears streaming down his face during “Oh Canada.”
“All the emotions hit me during the national anthem,” he said. “The journey it took to get there. If you compare a lot of the stories of our guys with other teams in the tournament, I think we are probably one of the teams with the most unconventional route to the World Cup.
“Just seeing my family there – locking eyes with my mom and my dad – hit all the emotions at once and (I was) also grateful to be a Canadian and represent my country at that moment.”
Canada star Alphonso Davies also has his parents here. Captain Atiba Hutchinson had his brother and sister in the stands.
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Alphonso Davies’ former school in Edmonton hosts World Cup viewing party
Like most country associations, Canada Soccer has an official supporters group that offers access to tickets.
Called Canada Red, the Canadian program now has nearly 100,000 members spread across three tiers — Canada Red (free), Canada Red and White ($50 annually) and Canada Red and Gold ($150 annually). The two top tiers were added earlier this year, just before securing Canada’s World Cup qualification.
Canada Soccer promises that every dollar raised is “reinvested in Canada Soccer programs that benefit our national teams as well as development initiatives across the country.”
Canada Red members received clear codes to enter a ticket lottery for stock set aside for Canada as a participating nation. The Canada Red and Gold was given the “highest priority” in the weighted random draw conducted by Canada Soccer, followed by Canada Red and White and Canada Red.
In developing the program and infrastructure needed to operate the ticket pipeline, Canada Soccer studied best practices from U.S. Soccer and England’s Soccer Association.
But no matter the framework, it’s a numbers game with demand stretching supply.
Those able to purchase tickets through their PMA supporter code had the option of pricing tickets at 250 Qatari Riyal ($91.85), 600 Riyal ($220.40) or 800 Riyal ($293.90).
Canadians who wanted luxury VIP packages were referred to FIFA’s match hospitality department.
Gage said the ticketing process went smoothly, with FIFA providing assistance.
“The reality is we’ve run a World Cup on home soil before,” Gage said, referring to the 2015 Women’s World Cup and a slew of FIFA youth competitions. “So a FIFA ticketing process is not new to us and we have experience in actually managing that process.”
Canada Soccer worked with the men’s players’ association on the friends and family package, which is part of the ongoing labor conversation with the men’s and women’s groups.
Canada Soccer staff are seconded to support the program, providing access to accommodation, air travel support, access to tickets, Canada Soccer House and local excursions.
Gage says there are about 275 so-called friends and family in Qatar.
Friends and family are picked up from the airport and taken to their accommodation as well as the stadium game day where they have a dedicated entrance.
“It’s really a concierge-level service,” Gage said.
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They get access to accommodation, available through FIFA, at inclusive room rates that are better than what they would pay on the open market.
“It’s basically taking the system we built to support them home and bringing it to Doha,” Gage said.
Canada Soccer will host the same program for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Friends and family also get access to a dedicated section at Canada Soccer House, an outdoor space with pool on the fifth floor of the Hilton Pearl Doha. It’s a place to hang out, watch games on a big screen and eat and drink.
For others, the rate for a visit to Canada Soccer House is $249 for an adult and $99 for a child. That includes up to seven drinks per adult, “plus gifts.”
“Basically, we use it on a cost-recovery basis,” Gage said.
READ MORE: Edmontonians head to Qatar to cheer on Canada at World Cup
The space, which can accommodate around 500 people, is impressive at night, with the outdoor patio surrounded by neon buildings giving it a Las Vegas-like atmosphere.
“I think in any World Cup it’s an undertaking,” Gage said of setting up such a space. “In a country like Qatar where there are more restrictions, it was even more of an undertaking. But we were committed to making sure that Canadian fans who came to Qatar had a place to call home.”
The space will be open as long as Canada is in the tournament.