Qatar finally had to exhale. It had been quiet for too long. It was evident in the rousing way in which their national anthem was sung, paradoxically, by a native people who are in the minority on their land, compared to nearly 80% of the foreign workforce who help sustain their country, a time a pearl center set back until they discovered natural gas and everything it could do. On Sunday, in the cold desert evening, in the glittering and packed Al-Bayt stadium in the city of Al Khor which literally means stream, singing louder than the rest, they were just reaffirming to the world that this belongs to them, that they had created it. And that, the world is welcome.
Outside, with the systems in place outside, the shuttles and scans well oiled and running smoothly, the glitz of the VIP guest and the ordinary ticket-buyer for short, a sweaty mingling introduced by the predominantly Indian and volunteer army African, inside was a thunderous show of sound, light and colour. And Morgan Freeman’s rich, soothing baritone that tells us what we already know about the unifying power of football, but we drink it giddily as if we were hearing it for the first time. But that’s what Freeman and his voice can do.
FIFA World Cup 2022 opening ceremony
It was a sweet irony. Her words brought to mind the sight at the media buffet two days ago, when lines of cheery African staff served lines of predominantly white media, waiting plates in hand, for the day’s meal. Reverse symbolism was as powerful as it was fun.
To think that when the European media kept pointing out all the evils and actions of a discriminatory state, but in turn crossed the line into casual racism, it was Freeman, a black man who had slipped so easily into the role of Nelson Mandela on screen, who they were pausing, looking up from their laptops to listen. But then, that’s what Morgan Freeman and his voice can do.
Down in Al-Bayt territory, Qatar was so eager to kick things off, as if before anything else was “unmasked” or unearthed by another world of watchdogs waiting to see it fail or bask in the attention drawn away, that the actual World Cup was already underway, even before the stadium announcer could complete his countdown. It was such a relief. The excitement showed when their national team, and its form, almost immediately went sideways and all over the place, allowing a fine team from Ecuador to settle in and make good use of the width of the pitch. First time big nervousness on stage? Perhaps, as football has taken over and played the strength of the draw.
Enner Valencia (L) Ecuador celebrates after scoring their team’s second goal. (Getty Images)
No player in history has ever scored two goals in the first match of the World Cup, Enner Valencia Ecuador’s could have scored a first-half hat-trick if the VAR discovered less than half a foot between Michael Estrada and his marker five minutes into the game. For a while, everyone was confused as to why play would not resume after Valencia vaulted past their man and headed in a fine goal after Saad Alsheeb, The Qatar goalkeeper, probably taken by the enormity of the occasion, stormed madly into the fray leaving his door open and forgetting to pick up the ball in the process. Then you realized the VAR tribunal was in session – yes, now that the game is finally here, the other issues are guaranteed to confuse things.
Ecuadorians would not be discouraged for long. In the 13th minute, Valencia found themselves weighing Al Sheeb again with a ball from deep. The away goalkeeper brought him down, Valencia almost reluctantly scoring from the penalty spot, but it was actually a cleverly taken penalty to take the lead.
Then, just after the hour, our man got up again and went home to sort of settle the matter. They did so when the match ended 2-0, but it would not lessen the fervor the locals felt in the stadium. He showed the courage and effort shown by the hosts to try and come up with something and not disappoint their support at home. Something tells us that even though football takes over this wintery month in the desert and the big boys take over their stage, it won’t go away.