It is happening, then—the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is under way. Qatar lost to Ecuador 2-0 in the opener on November 20, making more unwanted headlines by becoming the first hosts to lose the opening game in the tournament’s history.
The opening ceremony might not have topped FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s Shakespearian-like monologue the day before, but there was certainly an argument that it topped the football that followed it. Short as opening ceremonies go, Qatar balanced crowd-pleasing nostalgia with loud entertainment. It also included plenty of reminders, just in case previous mentions had been forgotten, that this tournament is about bringing people together.
Indeed, the opening game brought together a select band of VVIPs (very, very important people): Infantino, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Also in attendance were International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, head of the European Club Association.
Controversy, cost, criticism
There were also camels, Hollywood star Morgan Freeman reiterating the need for respect and tolerance, and K-pop star Jungkook of BTS singing about realizing dreams. The integration of different nations’ chants into one melody and the return of all the previous World Cup mascots were, even if a classic of the opening-ceremony genre, nice touches of the aforementioned nostalgia. It was a celebration, but the message behind it was also hard to miss.
Indeed, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, father of Qatar’s current emir, was played clips of his own football memories the audience was invited to join in recalling its own football origin story.
Given the controversy, cost, and criticism of this tournament, together might not be the most fitting word. Nevertheless, from the Souq Waqif, a redeveloped marketplace in Doha that has become a hub for fans, to the tent-like structure of the Al Bayt Stadium, there were plenty of football fans. Jerseys and colours of Poland, Ghana, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico were all on display.
While Qatar’s cheering section felt a bit more choreographed—the use of the Icelandic clap inside the opening two minutes a little too well studied perhaps—Ecuador’s yellow corner was tremendous and vibrant.
The future is here
For the real passion some fans have presented, this World Cup also feels unsettlingly staged. The Al Bayt Stadium lies a 40-minute drive north of Doha, the capital. To get there, many fans arrived by the self-driving metro (and then a bus), a million-dollar service built specifically for this tournament. Riding the glossy train felt like a scene from a science-fiction film where the creator reveals their grand plans for the future.
Except this is the present. This $200-billion World Cup in the smallest-ever host nation is happening now. The lights and music are on. An enormous inflatable World Cup trophy was put on the centre circle and flames were fired off into the air around it. Other than the large yellow section of Ecuador fans, some of whom sang for beer, the stadium really was half empty 15 minutes before the final whistle. The show, as it always does in football, goes on.
Indeed, Infantino said as much just before the game began: “Welcome to celebrate football because football unites the world. Let’s welcome the teams and let the show begin.”
And so it, the tournament that many believe has already changed football forever, begins. Football is in focus, but it is unlikely to remain the focus for the next month.