Morgan Freeman and soldiers on camels but Qatar team lets the side down
Long before the end of a painful and humbling opening night for Qatar at this World Cup, many of the country’s richest and most powerful men were speeding away from the Al Bayt stadium in their fast cars and 4x4s. They had, however, learned a valuable lesson. Money can buy you a lot of things in sport. Major events. Lavish stadiums. Impressive infrastructure. But it cannot guarantee a competitive national football team.
That harsh reality was dispensed in clinical style by an unheralded Ecuador side, who breezed to a 2-0 lead – thanks, in part to Qatar’s erratic goalkeeper, Saad al-Sheeb – before taking their foot off the pedal. Not that many home fans were there to see it. Despite so much hype and expectation, along with a 12-year wait to watch their team in a home World Cup, thousands left at half-time.
We have regularly been told how deeply this World Cup matters to Qataris. Yet when it came to the crunch they could not disappear quick enough. Then again, having spent a reported $200bn to get their country ready for this event, more than every combined World Cup and Olympics in history, maybe they expected more from their team. Most of us did, in truth. Maybe the nerves and pressure were just too much.
Earlier the omens had appeared promising. There was a lavish opening ceremony with sword-spinning dancers, camels and the South Korean K-pop star Jungkook, who sang the official anthem Dreamers. He was not the only one. The show was narrated by the actor Morgan Freeman, who promised: “On this journey, east and west will come together with one goal.” The message was clear: Qatar and football could act as an emollient for a troubled and divided world.
Perhaps it contained the thinnest sliver of truth. High above in the VVIP seats, Qatar’s emir watched on, sitting beside Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, and Saudi Arabia’s ruler Mohammed bin Salman. Early last year, when the Saudis were part of a six-nation blockade of Qatar, few would have predicted that.
Outside the stadium, meanwhile, thousands of ticketless fans had gathered to revel in the moment. And everywhere stereotypes were being smashed, not bottles. Traditional musicians played as kids and their parents danced and smiled. The first Arab and Muslim World Cup reverberated with possibilities.
There were no huge queues before kick-off nor a late rush to get in. But on the lush lawns of a perimeter park created in the desert 40km from Doha, thousands of ticketless locals gathered to be part of the moment and queue for a McDonalds.
One Doha resident, Shahid, who did not wish to share his full name, was looking after his children outside while their mother had got lucky with a ticket for the match. Shahid said he would go to 20 matches during the tournament, having created two Fifa accounts for the purpose. He said the majority of his friends had done the same.
The stage was set. The Al Bayt stadium looked spectacular, the pitch perfect. Meanwhile the gigantic air coolers on the side of each stand ensured the temperatures were perfect for players and fans.
When the emir, who arrived by helipad before driving past an immaculate parade of soldiers on camels, turned up in the stadium there was loud applause. Before today a tournament host had never lost their opening World Cup match. But the writing was on the wall long before a double strike by the veteran striker Enner Valencia applied an efficient kill.
As the match sagged towards a predictable conclusion the Qataris who remained largely sat in silence, apart from a singing section in purple shirts – apparently brought in from Lebanon – behind the goal. By the end even their enthusiasm had waned. Could you blame them?
This, of course, has been billed by many as the most controversial World Cup ever, because of Qatar’s human rights record. But, remember, the last one was staged in Russia. And the one before that in Brazil, which has since been shown to have been soaked in corruption.
Qatar continues to point out that it has made some notable changes – in particular laws to abolish the kafala system in 2020, which stopped migrants from changing jobs or leaving the country without their employer’s permission, and introduce a minimum wage. Too many worrying gaps remain in the system, though.
And watching this match, it was hard not to think about the thousands of migrant workers who have lost lives in the last 12 years. Meanwhile reform remains nonexistent when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and partial regarding women’s rights.
The tournament’s opening game also served as an early stress test of how Qatar may cope with the expected influx of 1.2m foreign fans. The signs, it is fair to say, were mixed.
Four hours before kick-off the cars on the main road into the stadium were barely moving, and there were some empty seats as the opening ceremony began. Meanwhile it was also reported that a group of more than 200 south Asian workers, hired to work on the food stalls at the match, had been without access to food, water or toilet facilities for seven hours.
Perhaps these were early teething problems. The matches on Monday, especially England’s intriguing Group B game against Iran, will provide a much more reliable guide.
But as the Al Bayt stadium emptied, one was reminded that the atmosphere was a far cry from the giddiness in the local papers hours earlier, with the Gulf Times promising that the“Best ever Fifa World Cup kicks off in Qatar today” and Al Arab hailed how “Qatar turns the Arab dream into reality”.
So much for that. Repeatedly the Ecuador fans chanted “queremos cerveza” – we want beer – in celebration. The Qataris, however, will have to find a different way to drown their sorrows.