The Qatar World Cup is currently going on.
There was a cauldron-like atmosphere at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Doha on Sunday as 60,000 football fans streamed towards the spectacular venue – shaped like a traditional Bedouin tent – for the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East.
The whole world witnessed Hollywood star Morgan Freeman deliver a message of hope, unity and tolerance before Qatari singer Dana rocked the stadium.
In a glitzy opening ceremony, Freeman greeted the young disabled Qatari influencer Ghanim al-Muftah and lamented about a world which feels “distant and divided”.
In an exchange with the veteran actor, Muftah, a popular YouTuber who was born with a rare disorder that impairs the development of the lower spine, replied with a verse from the Quran.
He explained that Muslims believe people from different nations and tribes were put together on earth to learn from each other and find “beauty in our differences”.
The teachings of Islam are likely to feature heavily during the tournament – Quranic verses and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) – have already been spotted around Doha.
Later, fans were treated to a traditional sword dance (known as Ardah), followed by a display of flags of all the participating nations and a mashup of previous World Cup songs, including Shakira’s Waka Waka and K’naan’s Wavin Flag.
In the final musical performance, Jung Kook, member of South Korean boyband BTS, performed his new song Dreamers, as he was joined by Qatari singer Fahad al-Kubaisi.
Fireworks filled the night sky above the stadium shortly afterwards, as players from Qatar and Ecuador took to the field.
Ahmed Ali, a 28-year-old Qatari fan, said it was one of the proudest moments of his life, second only to his recent marriage.
“This is unprecedented. Who would have believed 20 years ago, after [the] 9/11 [attacks] that an Arab and Muslim country would hold the greatest tournament in the world?” he said.
Hosts Qatar were comfortably beaten by Ecuador 2-0, thanks to two first-half goals by Fenerbahce forward Enner Valencia.
The opening game
Asian champions Qatar enjoyed the backing of the majority of the crowd at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium, but could not follow a glitzy opening ceremony with a statement performance. Ecuador thought they had made a dream start when they silenced the home fans as Valencia headed in, only for the goal to be ruled out by VAR for an offside in the build-up.
Valencia did break the deadlock with a penalty in the 16th minute and doubled his tally just after the half-hour mark. Qatar improved slightly in the second period, but by the end of the 90 minutes, the excitement which greeted the build-up – featuring Morgan Freeman and BTS star Jung Kook – was a distant memory as thousands of fans left early amid a deflated atmosphere.
Felix Sanchez’s Qatar will likely need a positive result in their second Group A match against Senegal on Friday just to avoid the ignominy of becoming only the second hosts, after South Africa in 2010, to be dumped out in the first round.
Hopes were high among the crowd that Qatar could make a winning start, but the deficiencies of the World Cup debutants were ruthlessly exposed by an impressive Ecuador.
Qatar failed to even muster a shot on target in the game, with spectators filing out of the stands long before the final whistle. In the 92-year history of the tournament, home countries had previously won 16 and drawn six of their opening matches.
A tiny coastal nation, little known to much of the world, hosts a landmark football tournament. Fuelled by a surging export economy and the labour of a sizable population of foreign-born migrants, the country builds major infrastructure to stage an event that takes place mostly in its capital city. For the host nation, this World Cup is not simply an exercise in sporting entertainment, but an opportunity to put itself on the map, showcase its prosperity and prowess, and win global prestige.
I’m writing about Uruguay in 1930, the setting of the first World Cup. But the same setup would be true for Qatar as the 2022 World Cup is already underway. To be sure, there is no shortage of differences between now and then. On a sporting dimension alone, Uruguay rode into the inaugural tournament on the back of gold medal football triumphs in the Olympics, and won the first World Cup on home soil. No matter Qatar’s expensive and careful development of its national football program, it is not expected to be competitive or even get out of the group stage.
Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani had received a deafening reaction from the fans when he paid homage to the diversity in attendance at the opening ceremony.
“How beautiful it is for people to put aside what divides them in order to celebrate their diversity,” he said. “Let this tournament be full of inspiring days of goodness and hope, and welcome everyone to the world in Doha.”
Qatar, which was awarded the right to host the tournament in 2010, has received renewed criticism over its treatment of migrant workers and its human rights record in the run-up to the opening ceremony.
Infantino has hit back at the criticism, saying western nations were in no position to give “moral lessons” to other countries.
“I’m European. For what we Europeans have been doing around the world in the last 3,000 years, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people,” Infantino said on Saturday.
Labour conditions in Qatar, as in many of the Gulf Arab states, have been criticised for exploiting low-paid workers, who have built the former pearling port into a desert metropolis.
Home to more than two million migrants, Qatar has overhauled its labour laws, but activists have asked for more to be done.
Speaking to kick442, Ibrahim Barrie, a cashier at a popular supermarket in the Dahl al Hamam neighbourhood of Madinat Khalifa, said he was excited about the tournament and the prospect of watching African nations excel.
Pressed further, the 30-year-old admitted his love for Senegal. “Sadio Mane’s large cut-out near the City Centre Mall gives me goose bumps,” he said.
With much of the pre-tournament build up being dominated by conversations around human rights, the weather, construction and other off-pitch issues, the football is now upon us.
World Cups have always been Political
“No state, until now, has placed sport in general, and the World Cup in particular, at the heart of its foreign policy and economic development” as uniquely as Qatar, football historian David Goldblatt recently wrote. A half century ago, the former British protectorate was an obscure backwater on the Persian Gulf, known for pearl-diving and little else. But an immense fortune in hydrocarbons, especially liquefied natural gas, transformed its fate, turbocharged its rise as an influential regional power and underwrote its bid for the 2022 tournament.
Qatar’s ruling monarchy staked a generation’s worth of political capital on the staging of the Middle East’s and Arab world’s first World Cup. It bankrolled an astonishing bonanza of construction, conjuring up new stadiums, roads, train systems, hotels and other infrastructure.
And it withstood the ire of neighbouring Gulf monarchies, whose resentment over Qatar showcasing itself in 2022 lurked beneath a broader economic and political blockade of the peninsula nation between 2017 and 2021.
Immediately after Uruguay’s debut, the interwar years got dominated by Benito Mussolini’s fascist project, with Italy winning at home in 1934 and then again in France in 1938. Italian Coach Vittorio Pozzo recalled the hostile reaction in Marseille, France, when Italy’s squad performed the fascist salute in their first match against Norway. “Having won the battle of intimidation, we played,” he said.
Other forces shaped subsequent tournaments. Brazil’s dominant multiracial sides came on the scene as decolonization swept Asia and Africa, and soon developed cult followings across the developing world from the slums of Kolkata, India, to the streets of Nairobi. Argentina’s 1978 tournament was an awkward propaganda showcase for its military dictatorship, which faced boycotts from some countries in Europe. France’s victory in 1998 on home soil with a team largely drawn from communities with roots in former French colonies crystallized the European nation’s shifting identity.
World Cups can also summon false dawns. International anger over Russia’s 2018 tournament faded by the time the tournament kicked off. Journalists and foreign fans alike, were charmed by the spirit of exuberance and openness that suffused Russia’s cities during the tournament, which saw a mediocre Russian side make its way to the quarterfinals.
More than a decade ago, Qatar was awarded the honour of hosting the region’s first-ever FIFA World Cup. The Gulf nation quickly mobilised to roll out mass projects to prepare for the world’s biggest sporting event, in which it would see more than a million visitors flock to the country for the first time.
As part of its preparation, the Gulf state has gone beyond the physical to transform its fabric – reforming its legislation to address concerns surrounding migrant worker rights.
However, despite this, Qatar has faced a mass misinformation campaign, enduring a slew of attacks from the western world, much of which has refused to acknowledge progress made on the ground.
Over the last decade, Doha has continued to actively address ongoing violations of migrant worker rights and has pumped up inspections and enhanced transparency when it comes to breaches.
In recent weeks and as the World Cup is around the corner, the hate media have taken on a more striking approach in a last bid attempt to hit hard at the anti-Qatar media campaign.
The Disinformation War
Perhaps one of the most common and reported misinformation is that Qatar’s edition of World Cup is the “most expensive” in history. Just like many of the other headlines in the media campaign, there’s more to the figure than what was reported.
While reports say Qatar has spent $220 billion on the World Cup, officials from the Gulf state say otherwise.
The actual amount spent on World Cup projects and expenses, according to
Nasser Al-Khater, CEO of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, says the actual amount spent on World Cup projects and expenses is actually closer to $8 billion.
However, Qatar has invested tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure, such as new airport terminals, ports, roads as well as a metro and tram system, all of which are part of its long-term development plan.
The Qatar National Vision 2030 was finalised years before Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup back in 2010.
Compared to other countries, the direct spending on the tournament is close to the last two FIFA events. According to official statistics, Brazil spent about $15 billion to host the 2014 World Cup, while Russia spent $11.6 billion hosting the most recent World Cup in 2018.
Over the last few weeks, initial reports by western media outlets claimed Qatar paid for fans from around the world to visit the country for what it described as “good PR”. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy’s Fan Leader Network, was designed to engage and directly communicate with football fans from different parts of the world.
Comprising more than 450 individuals from 59 nations, the network provides members with the opportunity to experience the true spirit of sports.
“We have been able to understand how fans from a vast variety of footballing cultures enjoy sporting events and offered them direct access to tournament organisers to share their feedback and ask questions about the tournament and host country.”
However, the SC dismissed the allegations, saying the invitees were not paid but had their expenses covered.
The members have personally volunteered and “expressed an interest in learning more about the tournament and the host country,” the SC noted.
Qatar’s first participation in a World Cup has been overshadowed by controversies off the pitch with questions over their results in pre-tournament friendlies and claims of inducements being offered to Sunday’s opponents the latest to cloud preparations. However, Sánchez, a former Barcelona youth coach who joined the Aspire Academy in Qatar 16 years ago, claimed it is a concerted effort to unsettle the host nation and will not succeed.
“There is a lot of misinformation,” said Sánchez in response to the bribery rumours. “The internet is a great tool but it is also very dangerous. No one will be able to destabilise us with these statements. We are not affected at all. We are very happy to be playing in a World Cup. We are focused on bringing our A-game and will not take anything else into account.”
Time will tell what the legacy of this World Cup will be, but if the past few days, months, and years are anything to go by, let the show go on.
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