Al Khor, Qatar
For the past year, a giant clock in Doha has been counting down to the opening game of the World Cup. Qatar and the world need wait no longer, after the controversial tournament kicked off on Sunday with the hosts’ 2-0 loss to Ecuador.
After a spectacular opening ceremony, which featured Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and BTS star Jung Kook, the sport itself finally took center stage after being overshadowed by off-court questions during the preparation.
It was not the result that many in Qatar would have hoped for. The host looked nervous and fought against an opposition possessing experience and quality. In truth, the game was almost over at half-time, with Ecuador comfortably leading 2-0 thanks to two goals from Enner Valencia.
All the pre-match excitement slowly drained from the stadium in the second half and there were noticeably more empty seats as some fans seemed to have had enough.
The closer we got to Sunday’s kick-off in Doha, the more excited the fans in that city were. A magnificent fireworks display lit up the sky on Saturday night and social media erupted with Qataris expressing their excitement at hosting one of sport’s biggest events.
Over the past few days, fans from around the world have gathered in the squares of downtown Doha to sing, chant and wave their national flags, creating a fantastic atmosphere.
That festival spirit continued on matchday, from the city center to the new Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted the opening match of this historic World Cup, the first to be held in the Middle East.
At times it looked like any other major international tournament, but the preparation for this event was, of course, like no other.
Corruption scandals have plagued FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, after awarding the tournament to Qatar in 2010 – although Qatari officials have previously “strongly denied” to CNN allegations of corruption surrounding its bid.
For more than a decade, and increasingly as kick-off approached, preparations for the tournament focused on the country’s human rights record, from the deaths of migrant workers and the conditions that many have endured in Qatar, as well as its LGBTQ laws and the place of women in its society. The last-minute ban on alcohol in World Cup stadiums also grabbed headlines around the world.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s remarkable press conference on the eve of the opening game showed how few problems on the pitch had been so far.
The FIFA boss addressed hundreds of journalists in Doha on Saturday and began the press conference with a nearly hour-long speech, in which he accused Western critics of hypocrisy and racism.
Those involved in the tournament faced a lot of criticism. Colombian singer Maluma, who features in the official World Cup anthem, left an interview on Israeli television when asked about the Gulf state’s human rights record.
The opening ceremony itself had a strong focus on unity, with performances nodding to all the countries participating in this year’s tournament.
While pre-match attention was inevitably on the host nation, Qatar’s opponents also had a story to tell as their place in the tournament was only confirmed a few weeks ago after being involved in a legal dispute with its Chilean rival.
It centered on the eligibility of Bryon Castillo who his rivals claimed was ineligible to represent Ecuador due to his claims that he was born in Colombia. The case was referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which found Castillo eligible but, despite this, he was not included in his country’s World Cup squad for Qatar 2022. On Sunday, he did not not seem that the team is missing Castillo.
Minutes into the match, boisterous Ecuadorian fans were celebrating after it appeared their side had taken the lead. Valencia headed in from close range, but the video assistant referee (VAR) ruled Valencia offside and disallowed the goal.
But minutes later the yellow shirts were celebrating again as Valencia gave their side the lead from the penalty spot. Goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb had fouled the striker as he tried to pass him.
The captain doubled his tally before the end of the first half, heading a header into the bottom corner as Qatar appeared to lack confidence and conviction.
Now that the action is underway, organizers hope the focus will shift from human rights and other off-pitch issues. But, in truth, the legacy of this tournament will not be determined on the pitch. Instead, it will be decided by real change and the betterment of the lives of the people who helped make it happen.