After 12 years of preparations, billions of dollars and some of the worst press in history to face a major sporting tournament, the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of fans packed into Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, for a match between the hosts and Ecuador. Making its first World Cup appearance, Qatar looked severely outclassed, however, and ended up losing 2-0 to the South Americans.
Sunday’s game was preceded by an elaborate opening ceremony partly narrated by Morgan Freeman and including a performance by K-Pop sensation Jungkook of BTS, who premiered Dreamers, a World Cup anthem recorded with Qatari singer Fahad al-Kubaisi.
Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, was greeted with loud cheers by the home crowd as he officially opened the tournament, inside a stadium designed to look like a traditional Bedouin tent.
“From Qatar, from the Arab world, I welcome everyone to the World Cup 2022,” the 42-year-old said. “How lovely it is that people can put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together.”
The day before, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who appeared alongside Mr. al-Thani, had expressed a similar sentiment, as well as hoping that once the soccer started, the criticism that has faced the Middle East’s first World Cup would fade.
For more than a decade, both FIFA and Qatar have faced scrutiny over the emirate’s treatment of migrant workers and the criminalization of homosexuality, as well as concerns over how a conservative Muslim country would handle the influx of hundreds of thousands of rowdy foreign fans.
A last-minute decision by the Qataris to ban the sale of alcohol at stadiums left many fans feeling annoyed and raised questions over how much the local authorities will follow through on other promises made ahead of the tournament.
With that decision, the only place visitors can buy alcohol is in a handful of hotels and at fan festivals held at various spots around Qatar.
There were chaotic scenes at the biggest festival site Sunday, however, as more than double the 40,000 capacity attempted to enter ahead of the opening game.
Police realized the problem and had to shepherd irate supporters back out of the venue, and some fans said the situation felt dangerous given the potential crush of people.
While Qatar has invested billions in building stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, including a new subway system, it has no experience holding such a large event, and concerns had previously been raised over the ability of the local police – bolstered by cops from Turkey and Pakistan – to handle unruly or frustrated crowds.
Several stadiums are a lengthy bus or subway ride outside Doha, and often require fans to walk 20 to 30 minutes on top of that to the venue. With some games starting at 1 p.m. local time, the often brutal heat could make this very uncomfortable for fans.
Qataris are being encouraged to drive to events, and leave the public transport to visitors, but this, too, could lead to problems, with long queues into Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday.
That might explain why a large portion of the crowd appeared to leave at halftime, with Qatar already down two goals, with another goal disallowed on a questionable offside decision. As the game reached its close, the only section of the stadium without large empty spots was the sea of yellow where the jubilant Ecuador fans were seated.
With a report from Reuters