By Ben Church
For the past year, a giant clock in Doha has been counting down to the opening match of the World Cup. Qatar and the world need wait no more, after this controversial tournament got underway Sunday with the host losing 2-0 to Ecuador.
After a spectacular opening ceremony, which starred the likes of Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and BTS star Jung Kook, the sport itself finally took center stage after being overshadowed by off-the-pitch matters during the build-up.
It wasn’t the result that many in Qatar would have hoped for. The host looked nervous and struggled against an opposition possessing experience and quality. In truth, the game was all but over at halftime, with Ecuador comfortably 2-0 up thanks to two goals by Enner Valencia. Football experts say the score should have been 3-0 but Ecuador was denied a goal at the three-minute mark following a controversial video review by the referee.
All the excitement pre-match slowly drained away from the stadium in the second half and there were noticeably more empty seats as some fans seemed to have had enough.
The nearer we got to Sunday’s kickoff in Doha, the more excited fans in this city became. A magnificent firework display lit up the sky on Saturday night and social media exploded with Qataris making their enthusiasm known about hosting one of sport’s biggest events.
Over the last few days, fans from around the world have gathered in squares in downtown 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 has felt like any other major international tournament, but the build-up to this event has, of course, been unlike any other. Qatar is said to have spent $400 billion in preparations, four times Ecuador’s annual government budget.
Corruption scandals plagued FIFA, world football’s governing body, after it awarded Qatar the tournament in 2010 – though Qatari officials have previously “strongly denied” to CNN the allegations of bribery which has surrounded its bid.
For over a decade, and increasingly so as kickoff neared, the pre-tournament build-up has focused on the country’s human rights record, from the death of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured in Qatar, as well as its LGBTQ laws and the role of women in its society. The country’s last-minute ban of 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 demonstrated just how little on-field issues have featured so far.
The FIFA boss addressed hundreds of journalists in Doha, Saturday, and started the news conference with a near hour-long speech, during which he accused Western critics of hypocrisy and racism.
Those involved in the tournament have faced much criticism. Colombian singer Maluma, who features in the official World Cup anthem, walked out of an interview on Israeli television when he was questioned about the Gulf state’s human rights record.
The opening ceremony itself focused heavily on unity, with performances giving a nod to all the countries playing in this year’s tournament.
While the pre-match attention was inevitably on the host nation, Qatar’s opponents also had a story to tell as its place in the tournament was only confirmed weeks ago after it was involved in a legal dispute with rivals Chile.
It centered around the eligibility of Bryon Castillo who, rivals argued, was ineligible to represent Ecuador over claims he was born in Colombia. The case was referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who deemed Castillo eligible but, despite this, he was not included in his nation’s World Cup squad for Qatar 2022. On Sunday’s showing, it doesn’t look like the team miss Castillo.
Minutes after the game started, the noisy 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) deemed Valencia was offside and disallowed the goal. Analysts say the infraction was by a matter of inches and came after Valencia contact with the ball and would have been counted under other circumstances.
But just minutes later, the yellow shirts were celebrating again as Valencia put his side ahead from the penalty spot. Goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb had fouled the forward as he attempted to skip beyond him.
The captain doubled his tally before the first half finished, directing a bullet header into the bottom corner as Qatar looked short of confidence and belief.
Now that the action is underway, organizers will hope attention will move away from human rights and other off-field issues. But, in truth, this tournament’s legacy will not be determined on the pitch. Instead, it will be decided by real change and the improvement of the lives of the people who helped make it happen.