Gear Inspiration

From the stands to pitch side. My journey to the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar with Fujifilm

· 3.April.2020

The year I went without a camera was painful. My first and only DSLR, the Nikon D3100, was swallowed up and then spat out by the unrelenting waves of the Pacific Ocean. I foolishly left it on the beach while I took a dip in the ferocious waters that often batter the port town of Puerto Varas in Ecuador. The camera was a write off and it would be a significant amount of time before I was able to purchase a new travel companion. On an earlier trip to Ecuador my 55-200mm lens fell out of my pocket as I traversed the steep inclines of an Amazon look-out tower. I could only watch with grim resignation as it bounced off one stair and through one of the gaps into the roaring river. My aforementioned clumsiness meant I was not betrothed to Nikons DX range as the only functioning bit of gear I had left was the 18-55mm lens that came with the camera. The 35mm f1.8 was attached to my D3100 when it was consumed by sea and therefore destroyed, while the 55-200mm, was also rendered unusable after its fall into one of the mighty Amazons tributaries.

After reviewing the plethora of camera reviews that can be found across the Internet I agreed upon the Fujfilm X-T1 with the XF18-55mm kit lens. If I enjoyed working with this novel system I would purchase the 35mm f2 in due course – I said to myself. I wanted to concentrate on street photography while breaking away from the monotony of Nikon and Canon and go for something smaller, more discreet without losing any of the formerspower and image quality. The Nikon D3100 was a fantastic camera on which to learn the basics of photography but even before it was snuffed out I was looking at higher octane alternatives.

I spent a few days becoming accustomed with Fujifilms dials, aperture ring and EVF before I took for it for its first spin on the streets of London, concentrating on commuters rushing through Liverpool Street station on their way home or for post work drinks. I was stunned by the image quality of the tiny machine and felt confident I had made the right choice in switching to Fujifilm.

My life as journalist for leading national newspaper in London meant I had little time for my true passion of documenting the lives of those around me through my camera. However, a slight switch in career and a move to Qatar allowed me more time to pursue this hobby of mine just a few months after I had plumped for the X-T1.

Doha, the capital of Qatar, is cacophony of snarling car horns, harsh languages that bounce through the polluted streets and relentless building work. The diversity of characters and the residential areas a few blocks from from the glistening skyscrapers of the city centre can present interesting opportunities for a street photographer. These parts house the countrys large south Asian migrant population. Men dressed in their countrys traditional dress navigate through the potholed roads that are tightly flanked by bland apartment blocks with dust stained exteriors and peeling paint, a stark contrast from the glitzy shopping malls and franchise residences that are being constructed in abundance in more affluent parts of the city.

Qatari band serenades Souq Waqif in Doha. Street photography is possible in Qatar but places to shoot are limited.

Despite this potential, options are still limited for street photographers in Qatar. There are only a handful of walkable areas (many of which are overly sanitised such as Souq Waqif) while summer temperatures can reach 50 degrees celsius making it impossible to remain outside in the suns unforgiving glare for more than a few minutes.

My unwavering passion for photography meant I had to go and find something else to shoot, away from the typical street scenes and dull multilayered landscape shots of Doha. By this stage I had purchased Fujifilms 55-200mm f3.5-4.7 to complement my growing arsenal of lenses. The variable aperture lens is in a different league to the Nikon DX version which plunged to an untimely death in the jungle. The all metal weather resistant form and fairly fast aperture opened further opportunities, I could take it out in inclement weather and capture fast moving subjects without losing too much image clarity at high ISOs. 

To put the lens through it paces I took it to a Qatar Stars League football match. I placed myself on the front row on the stands, as close to the pitch as I could get and behind the professional sports photographers. I began attending games on a weekly basis and quickly learned the appropriate settings for such action and the areas of the pitch where I would get the best action shots with my focal length. My progress was stunted on a few occasions where over zealous security officials refused my entry as spectators are not permitted to take cameras into the stands with them.

Action from the Qatar Stars League. Here I was sat in the stands shooting with the X-T1 and 55-200mm lens.

Although the Qatar Stars League or the QSL is not famous for its high quality football, the league does boast a number of ageing stars who plied their trade at some of Europes elite clubs during their peaks and young talented Qatari players who went on to lift the Asian Cup in 2019, the countrys first major trophy.

With my X-T1 and 55-200mm I captured the likes of World Cup Winner Xavi, ex Netherlands captain Wesley Sneijder and Asian player of the year 2019 Akram Afif, among a host of other footballers. 

I was becoming discontent being an outlier in the stands, I believed I could reach the level of the professional photographers on the touchlines with more access and as the matches are very poorly attended (sometimes there are more players than fans) I felt having me on the touchlines wouldnt do any harm.

In a stroke of serendipity, a friend who is a professional photographer for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, an offshoot of the Qatar Football Association and the body responsible for the successful execution of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, forwarded me the contact details of a QSL media officer. A few emails later, my lanyard and high vis photographers jacket were ready for collection from the leagues office, my access request was granted.

Al Duhail celebrate winning the QSL title. I took this photo from the stands, before I obtained a press pass for the league games.

Football has long been a passion of mine and with aspirations of becoming a full time photographer I felt I needed to refresh my gear, I wanted to do this properly. In the summer I had upgraded my XT1 for the XH1 and I knew this body was more than capable of tracking fast moving subjects. However, the 55-200mm would only be good for action close to me and its variable aperture range is far from ideal for sports. 

Asian player of the year 2019, Akram Afif, celebrates a goal during the Emir Cup final in Qatar.

Yacine Brahimi of Al Rayyan on the ball during a QSL game in 2019.

After much deliberation, that involved reading every review I could find, I bought the brand new 200mm f2 with the 1.4 teleconverter from Fujfilm Qatar. Although my wallet took a big hit with this expensive purchase it was the correct decision and helped propel my work to levels that I didnt believe were possible.

The results from the 200mm were spectacular. The autofocus tracked players superbly and the image quality rivals the more established telephoto lenses such as the Nikon 400mm f2.8. After shooting a couple of games with the lens I sourced sports photo agencies across the world and touted some of my pictures to them. NurPhoto, an Italy based agency, got back to me and offered me a freelance contract. I started submitting pictures to them on a regular basis and much to my surprise my photos of QSL action started selling to news outlets. Pictures appeared on the BBC, SkySports, ESPN and even the official FIFA webpage. I still get a thrill seeing my work in news articles.

Barcelona and Spain legend, Xavi, in action for Al Sadd during the Emir Cup final in 2019. The BBC used this photo in their article about Xavi’s retirement from playing football.

After a couple of months shooting matches, including an Emir Cup final in front of a capacity crowd at the Al Janoub stadium, the first purpose built World Cup 2022 venue to be completed, I received an email from Getty Images through my website. They had seen my work and were interested in offering me stringer and freelance contracts. Getty Images is the most famous photo agency in the world and its photographers have produced some of the most iconic sporting and current affairs imagery in the business so I was naturally thrilled to be able to submit my work directly to them.

Through Getty I gained confidence in my ability and applied for media accreditation for the FIFA Club World 2019 that was to be held in Doha. The December tournament was to boast Champions League winners Liverpool and Flamengo from Brazil, I had to be there on the touchline with my Fuji gear.

After months of checking the FIFA Media Accreditation portal for news on my application, I received confirmation that I had been granted pitch side access for all of the games with only a few weeks until the tournament began. I let off an excited yelp in my office when I opened the email.

The first game of the tournament was between Qatari champions Al Sadd and Hienghène Sport, an amateur team from New Caledonia who had had earned a place at the Club World Cup after winning the OFC Champions League earlier in the year. Al Sadd took the lead early on and looked to be heading for the next round before a stunning effort in the second half from Antoine Roine sent shockwaves through the stands of the Jassim bin Hamad stadium. Hienghène Sport were level and the expectant Qataris were ruffled.

A gritty performance from the New Caledonians forced the match into extra time where Al Sadd used their strength in depth and higher fitness levels to send the minnows home. The first three goals of the game came at the other end to where I was sitting, but Ro-Ros thunderous strike late into the second half of extra time was metres in front of me. The full back was also kind enough to flash a wide grin down my 200mm f2 (with the 1.4x tele converter attached) in celebration.

Ro-Ro of Al Sadd shoots and scores against Hienghène Sport during the first game of the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.

Ro-Ro of Al Sadd celebrates his goal against Hienghène Sport during the first game of the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.

Ro-Ro of Al Sadd smiles and flashes a heart down my lens after his goal against Hienghène Sport during the first game of the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.

A week later I was at the Khalifa International stadium, a venue with a 48,000 capacity, to cover Flamengo against Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia. The multi-purpose stadium, which has been renovated for the World Cup, had hosted 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships a few months before and numerous high profile footballing events.

The thousands of Flamengo supporters, who could be found in every corner of the stadium, were stunned into a rare moment of silence when Salem al Dawsari sent Al Hilal into a first half lead. However, Mengãoforced their way back into the game with a rampant second half showing. Giorgian de Arrascaeta equalised before Bruno Henrique netted a second late on and ran to the supporters behind the goal to celebrate. I managed to snap this with my 50-140mm f2.8 and sold the image to a number of newspapers. The quality of football from Flamengo in the second half and infectious chanting of their supporters set the stage for a fascinating final with Liverpool a few days later.

Action from the third place play off between Al Hilal and Monterrey at the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.

At this point in my photography career I had covered domestic cup finals in Qatar and international matches involving Middle Eastern countries but the final between Liverpool and Flamengo would be by far the biggest game I had shot. Flamengo boasted a team of Brazilian internationals such as Gabriel Barbosa, affectionately referred to as Gabigol, and Spanish centre back Pablo Mari who went on to sign for Arsenal a month later. Liverpool have a team of superstars recognisable across world and were on an unbeaten run in the Premier League which would last 44 games.

As the stadium filled with supporters from both sides my excitement grew. Chants for Liverpools talisman Mohamed Salah were quickly drowned out by raucous Brazilian fans an hour before the game had even started. Flamengo were underdogs but they didnt care, in a one off match anything could happen and to be crowned champions of club football is grand title that most in the game would like to attain.

Bruno Henrique of Flamengo celebrates his goal against Al Hilal at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup.

Before I took my seat on the touchline, I snapped Salah as he walked onto the pitch, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp taking his place in the dugout and the team photos.

The speed of the game was unlike any I had shot before and it took a few minutes for me to become accustomed to the pace. The attacking triumvirate of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sade Mane burst into pockets of space as they sought a first half goal while full backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, were a thorn in the Flamengo defence as they tried to get the better of veteran defenders Rafinha and Felipe Luis.

Despite an intense start the game fizzled out, with few clear cut chances but plenty of possession in midfield. I had obtained some decent photos of tackles and shots at goal but was lacking the game defining imagery all sports photographers crave. 

Naby Keita of Liverpool is tackled by Flamengo’s Éverton Ribeiro during the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup final at the Khalifa International Stadium.

Liverpool thought they had a penalty after Mane was tripped by Rafinha at the other end of the pitch. The photographer sat next to me leapt out of his chair and ran down the touchline with his camera, ignoring  FIFA officials angrily gesticulating for him to return to his spot. After a VAR check, the foul was deemed to be out of the area and the penalty decision overruled, the photographer ran back to his seat without capturing the decisive moment he envisioned.

The second half peaked and faltered and the referee blew his whistle for full time. Another 30 minutes football were to follow and if there was still no winner, penalties would decide the world champions of club football.

The photographer mentioned above and I were about to have a slice of good fortune, a seminal moment in the game at our end. Flamengo had an attack thwarted by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson who opened the opposition defence with a delightful through ball to Mane. The Senegalese international intelligently twisted his body to play in Firmino who was running into space. The Brazilian shimmied past Rafinha and struck cleanly into the goal as defenders rushed back to block the shot in vain. He ripped his shirt off and flexed his muscular physique as he made his way towards the sidelines where he was mobbed by his teammates who had rushed towards him to celebrate. And all of this happened in front of me. The speedy autofocus of the 200mm f2 allowed me to capture the strike and celebration, I had got what I wanted and perhaps a bit more. 

Roberto Firmino of Liverpool celebrates after scoring the winning goal of the 2019 Fifa Club World Cup in Doha, Qatar.

Flamengo huffed and puffed but couldnt find a breakthrough in the second half of extra time. Liverpool were crowned winners of the FIFA Club World Cup without the need for penalties.

To be a bit different I decided to shoot the trophy ceremony with the 200mm f2 instead of a wider angle lens. My photo of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson lifting the cup with an expression of sheer joy sold to a number of news outlets.

My first major football tournament presented great challenges, demanding the most of my technical ability, framing and gear. My pictures and sales from these games would not have been possible without shooting the less glamorous Qatar Stars League matches where I learned the basics and improved gradually. The Fujifilm cameras and lenses I used stepped up to the challenge of elite sports action, a field dominated by more expensive Canon and Nikon DSLRs. I cannot wait to shoot another event of this ilk and when I do I will surely be accompanied by my Fujis.

Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, lifts the FIFA Club World after in Doha, Qatar.