Al Khor, Qatar
A giant clock in Doha has been counting down to the opening match of the World Cup for a year now. Qatar and the world no longer have to wait after this controversial tournament kicked off on Sunday and the hosts lost 2-0 to Ecuador.
After a spectacular opening ceremony, starring Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and BTS star Jung Kook, the sport itself finally took center stage after being overshadowed by off-field affairs during its build-up.
It was not the outcome many in Qatar had hoped for. The host looked nervous, battling an opponent with experience and quality. In reality, the game was almost over at half-time, with Ecuador leading comfortably 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 this city became. A magnificent fireworks display lit up the skies on Saturday night and social media exploded with Qataris expressing their enthusiasm for hosting one of the biggest sporting events.
In recent days, fans from all over the world have gathered in squares in the center of Doha to sing, chant and wave their national flags, creating a fantastic atmosphere.
That festival spirit continued on match day, from the city center to the newly built 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 felt like any other major international tournament, but of course the lead up to this event was unlike any other.
Corruption scandals plagued FIFA, the governing body of world football, after it awarded Qatar the tournament in 2010 – though Qatari officials have previously “strongly denied” bribery allegations surrounding its bid to CNN.
For more than a decade, and increasingly as kickoff approaches, the pre-tournament buildup has focused on the country’s human rights record, of the deaths of migrant workers and the conditions many in Qatar, as well as the LGBTQ laws and the role of women in its society. The country’s last-minute ban on alcohol in World Cup stadiums also made headlines around the world.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s remarkable press conference on the eve of the opening game showed how few problems there have been on the pitch 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 endured much criticism. Colombian singer Maluma, who can be heard in the official World Cup anthem, left an interview on Israeli television when questioned about the Gulf state’s human rights record.
The opening ceremony itself had a strong focus on unity, with performances that were a nod to all the countries participating in this year’s tournament.
While the focus of the match inevitably turned to the hosts, Qatar’s opponents also had a story to tell as its place in the tournament was only confirmed weeks ago after it was embroiled in a legal dispute with rivals Chile.
It revolved around the eligibility of Bryon Castillo who, according to rivals, was ineligible to represent Ecuador due to claims he was born in Colombia. The case was referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which deemed Castillo fit, but was nevertheless not included in his country’s World Cup squad for Qatar 2022. On Sunday’s screening, it looks unlikely the team will miss Castillo .
Minutes after the game started, the boisterous Ecuadorian fans celebrated after it appeared their team had taken the lead. Valencia headed in from close range, but the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) ruled that Valencia was offside and disallowed the goal.
But a few minutes later, the yellow shirts celebrated again when Valencia gave his team the lead from the penalty spot. Goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb had fouled the striker as he tried to pass him.
The captain doubled his score before the first half ended and headed a ball into the bottom corner as Qatar appeared to lack confidence and belief.
With the action underway, organizers will hope that attention will turn away from human rights and other off-field issues. But in reality, the legacy of this tournament will not be defined on the field. Instead, it will be decided by real change and the improvement of the lives of the people who helped make it happen.