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 Arab solidarity, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Presidents of Egypt and Algeria will be among the political leaders at the opening ceremony, which will take place at 1440 GMT in a tented stadium, before the first game between hosts Qatar and Ecuador takes place. The UN Secretary General is also in Doha.
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 three Arab allies, including Egypt, that ended in 2021. The event will also see 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.
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 was banned in stadiums. Organizers say everyone is welcome while warning against public displays of love. Crowds of adoring fans are in Doha but the main rush is expected later this week. Upon arrival, Argentina fan Julio Cesar from Buenos Aires said he expected a great atmosphere. “Even if there is no beer, we will drink before the game.”
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 for the event. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” 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 put finishing touches to outdoor gardens and sidewalks and carted building supplies near the National Museum on Saturday while visitors milled around.
With a limited number of hotels in Qatar, fans will also be flying in on daily shuttle flights from cities like Dubai as Qatar shares the economic boon of the World Cup with its neighbours. In Doha, England, fan Neil Gahan played football with his son next to caravans housing fans. 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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