The World Championship begins Sunday in Qatar with a high-stakes event for the tiny nation, which has faced a barrage of criticism and has staked its reputation on a smooth tournament, the first in the Middle East and the most expensive in history. In a show of Gulf solidarity, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among the political leaders who arrived in Doha ahead of the opening ceremony, which will take place at 1440 GMT in a tented stadium ahead of the first match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador.
The tournament marks a culmination of Qatar’s soft-power push on the global stage and a show of strength following the end of a three-and-a-half-year boycott by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies that ended in 2021. The event will also be the first direct flights from Israel to Qatar for the World Cup. On stage, South Korean singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new official tournament song called Dreamers along with Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi. Among the foreign dignitaries will be the UN Secretary General and the President of Algeria.
Qatar and FIFA hope the spotlight will shift to on-field action after facing mounting criticism over foreign workers’ rights, LGBT rights and social restrictions. The organizers have denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights. Denmark and Germany’s team captains will wear One Love armbands, their teams said, as they prepare to compete in a conservative Muslim state where same-sex relationships are illegal.
Alcohol has been banned in stadiums and organizers have warned against public displays of affection, saying all fans are welcome to the event. While some visitors took their first sips at the opening of the FIFA Fan Festival in central Doha on Saturday, hundreds of workers, all men, gathered in a sports arena in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city where alcohol was not served. You can watch games there.
“Of course I didn’t buy a ticket. They are expensive and I should use that money for other things – like sending it home to my family,” said Ghanaian Kasim, a security official who has been working in Qatar for four years, told Reuters. Neville, a 24-year-old Kenyan, and his compatriot Willy, also 24 and a Manchester City fan, were hired as security guards during the event. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and definitely worth it,” Neville said.
Wealthy gas producer Qatar is the smallest nation hosting the biggest global football event, which is being organized at a cost of US$220 billion. Crowd control will be crucial as around 1.2 million visitors are expected – more than a third of Qatar’s population. Many of the workers who labored to prepare the tournament infrastructure will be watching from the sidelines as they are challenged from the stadiums. Doha has been criticized for its treatment of migrant workers but points to labor reforms against exploitation.
Workers on Saturday put finishing touches to outdoor gardens and sidewalks and carted building materials to a site near the National Museum, where fans in Argentinian jerseys milled among dozens. With a limited number of hotels in Qatar, fans will also be flying in on daily shuttle flights from cities like tourist hub Dubai as Qatar shares the economic boon of the World Cup with its neighbours.
“When we came in it was a bit of a construction site,” said England fan Neil Gahan at an area in Doha that housed fan containers. The booths are “not brilliant,” he said, but there are sports facilities nearby and huge screens. “Yes, I think everything will be fine”.
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