Construction workers from Bangladesh and Nepal frantically complete last-minute snagging in intense heat; drained players race to be ready for their opening game; WAGs adjust to life on a luxury cruise ship; and fans from across the globe descend on a desert state smaller than London.
The World Cup finally gets under way when hosts Qatar face Ecuador on Sunday, and the hope from organisers is that the football will, at long last, become the only talking point.
FIFA have already issued a diktat to competing nations to “now focus on football” and banned supporters from displaying political messages at matches. Qatar has form for limiting its citizens’ freedom of speech, and FIFA and the Supreme Committee would surely love to gag even those outside their dominion from uttering another word about the many damning controversies that make this the most compromised World Cup ever.
Inevitably, once the matches start to come thick and fast, FIFA and Qatar will get their way to some extent, as the wider context of death, corruption and oppression recedes, to be replaced by superstars, corporate glitz and controversy of altogether more vanilla kind. The first moment of Messi magic or VAR madness will push the plight of migrant workers down the agenda.
This is part of the insidiousness of sportswashing and why FIFA remain all-powerful. The world governing body may be almost-comically unscrupulous, but their offering is widely beloved and highly addictive. You may hate the supplier, but try saying no to a drug as powerful as a World Cup.
There are many compelling FIFA-approved narratives on which to focus.
The tournament will act as a send-off for many of the game’s biggest stars of the past two decades and effectively bring down the curtain on a golden era of individual brilliance.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, 35, has already said it will be his last World Cup and, although Cristiano Ronaldo wants to keep playing for Portugal, he seems unlikely to be competing in 2026, aged 41. If either lifts the trophy on December 18, it will add irresistibly to their respective cases to be the GOAT.
Croatia playmaker Luka Modric, 37, and France’s Karim Benzema, 34, are also aiming to cement their legacy, while Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and the remnants of Belgium’s Golden Generation, led by Kevin De Bruyne, are among the other stars for whom Qatar may be farewell on this stage.
As for the favourites, there is no universal pick and, in the unusual conditions, it will be intriguing to see whether there is an advantage for the pragmatists, which include Gareth Southgate’s stale-looking England, or the sides with a clearly-defined philosophy.
France, who have lost the spine of their team to injury, Portugal, England and Argentina are among the teams aiming to keep it tight and rely on individual brilliance, set pieces and a slice of luck to move through the rounds, while Germany, a top-heavy Brazil and Luis Enrique’s promising Spain will have a more defined style. Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands and Denmark are potential dark horses.
Copa America winners Argentina and their rivals Brazil, led respectively by Messi and Neymar, are quietly fancied to end the Eurocentric dominance of the past two decades. Look out for Ghana v Uruguay in the group stage, a grudge match following Luis Suarez’s handball antics in the 2010 quarter-final for the whole of Africa.
Another unknown is how the schedule will impact the quality of the football. A series of exhausted and underprepared players, given only a few days of training together in 30-degree heat, could make for a low-quality affair. On the flipside, a competition full of match-sharp stars could actually improve the quality, as England captain Harry Kane has suggested.
So, whether you are watching at home or heading out to Qatar, by all means embrace the tactical battles, cheer the heroes, boo the villains and enjoy the football. This is, after all, the greatest show on earth.
But do not lose sight of what this World Cup cost. No amount of on-pitch drama can justify the sheer human and environmental impact of the tournament, and the biggest question for everyone to consider is how best to appreciate the sport, given the wider context.