Morgan Freeman and camel soldiers but the Qatari team gives up | World Cup 2022

Morgan Freeman and Ghanim al-Muftah at the opening ceremony.
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Long before the end of a painful and humiliating opening night for Qatar at this World Cup, many of the country’s richest and most powerful men were driving away from the Al Bayt stadium in their fast cars and their 4x4s. However, they had learned a valuable lesson. Money can buy you a lot of things in sports. Major events. Sumptuous stadiums. Impressive infrastructure. But this cannot guarantee a competitive national football team.

That stark reality was dealt with clinically by an unsung Ecuadorian side, who took a 2-0 lead – thanks in part to erratic Qatar keeper Saad al-Sheeb – before slowing down. Few local fans were there to see it. Despite so much hype and expectation, as well as a 12-year wait to see their team in a home World Cup, thousands left at half-time.

We have been told regularly how important this World Cup is for the Qataris. Yet when it came to the crisis, they couldn’t leave fast enough. Then again, having spent $200 billion preparing their country for this event, more than all the World Cups and Olympics combined in history, perhaps they expected more from their team. Most of us have, in fact. Maybe the nerves and the pressure were just too much.

Previously, omens had shown promise. There was a lavish opening ceremony with sword dancers, camels and South Korean K-pop star Jungkook, who sang the official Dreamers anthem. He was not the only one. The show was narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, who promised, “On this journey, East and West will come together with one purpose. The message was clear: Qatar and football could act as an emollient for a troubled and divided world.

Perhaps it contained the slightest grain of truth. Above the VVIP seats, the Emir of Qatar watched, seated next to Fifa President Gianni Infantino and Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman. Early last year, when the Saudis were part of a six-nation blockade against Qatar, few would have predicted it.

Outside the stadium, meanwhile, thousands of ticketless fans had gathered to revel in the moment. And everywhere the stereotypes were broken, not the bottles. Traditional musicians played when they were children and their parents danced and smiled. The first Arab and Muslim World Cup rang with possibilities.

There were no huge queues before kick-off or a late rush to get in. But on the lush lawns of a peripheral park created in the desert 40 km from Doha, thousands of ticketless locals gathered to be part of the moment and line up for a McDonalds.

Morgan Freeman and Ghanim al-Muftah at the opening ceremony. Photo: Molly Darlington/Reuters

Doha resident Shahid, who declined to give his full name, was caring for his children away as their mother was lucky enough to get a ticket to the match. Shahid said he would take part in 20 matches during the tournament, having created two Fifa accounts for this purpose. He said the majority of his friends had done the same.

The scene was set. Al Bayt Stadium looked spectacular, the perfect pitch. Meanwhile, gigantic air coolers on the side of each stand ensured perfect temperatures for players and fans.

When the emir, who arrived by helipad before riding past an immaculate parade of camel soldiers, arrived at the stadium, there was loud applause. Before today, a tournament host had never lost their opening World Cup game. But the writing was on the wall long before a double strike from veteran striker Enner Valencia applied an effective kill.

As the match languished towards a predictable conclusion, the Qataris who largely sat in silence, except for a singing section in purple shirts – apparently brought in from Lebanon – behind the goal. In the end, even their enthusiasm had waned. Could you blame them?

This, of course, has been touted by many as the most controversial World Cup ever, due to Qatar’s human rights record. But, remember, the last one was staged in Russia. And the one before in Brazil, which has since been shown to be steeped in corruption.

Qatar continues to point out that it has made notable changes – in particular laws to abolish the kafala system in 2020, which prevented migrants from changing jobs or leaving the country without their employer’s permission. , and to introduce a minimum wage. However, too many worrying gaps remain in the system.

Meanwhile, reform remains non-existent when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and partial when it comes to women’s rights. And watching that game, it was hard not to bear in mind the human cost of the thousands of migrant workers who have lost their lives over the past 12 years.

Meanwhile, the tournament’s opening game served as an early stress test on how Qatar could cope with the expected 1.2 million overseas fans. The signs, it’s fair to say, were mixed.

Four hours before kick-off, cars on the main road leading to the stadium were barely moving, and there were a few empty seats as the opening ceremony began. Meanwhile, it was also reported that a group of over 200 South Asian workers, hired to work at the food stalls at the game, were denied access to food, water or toilet for seven hours.

Maybe it was early teething issues. Monday’s fixtures, particularly England’s intriguing Group B game against Iran, will provide a much more reliable guide.

But as Al Bayt Stadium emptied, the mood was remembered as a far cry from the giddy local newspapers hours earlier, with the Gulf Times promising that the ‘Best FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar today. today” and Al Arab hailed how “Qatar is turning the Arab dream into reality”.

So much for that. On several occasions, the Ecuadorian supporters chanted “queremos cerveza” – we want beer – celebrating. The Qataris, however, will have to find another way to drown their sorrows.

Additional reporting by Paul MacInnes in Doha


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