World Cup 2022 party quickly loses its fizz as Qatar freeze on biggest stage and fans flock to exits

World Cup 2022 party quickly loses its fizz as Qatar freeze on biggest stage and fans flock to exits

Twelve years and infinite controversies later, yet somehow still a day earlier than planned, this World Cup is finally underway.

It began, in truth, with a bit of a whimper, the host national outplayed by an Ecuador side who seemed to shake hands at 2-0 as the Al Bayt Stadium emptied from the half-time whistle onwards.

There has never been a World Cup at which the success or failure of the home team matters less, but even so, becoming the first hosts in 92 years to lose the opening game, and doing so in front of thousands upon thousands of empty seats, was hardly an encouraging start.

More alarming was the presence and positioning of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sat alongside Fifa president Gianni Infantino for the second World Cup opener in a row, and this time without his country’s involvement. So, are we all off to Saudi Arabia in 2030 or not until 2034?

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Abdullah II King of Jordan, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. (AFP via Getty Images)
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Abdullah II King of Jordan, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. (AFP via Getty Images)

For now, it was out into the Qatari desert, the 35-kilometre journey from central Doha to the most far-flung of the eight venues for this tournament serving as a reminder of just how uniquely compact the whole thing is as the road north ran directly past two of the others.

The choice of location felt significant, the Al Bayt Stadium’s design based on a traditional Bedouin tent and, though constructed just as recently as any of the other spaceships which loom up out of nothing to dominate the flat landscape here, offering some fallacy of connection with the national story.

Inside this Mary Poppins’ bag of a ground, a humble marquee containing a state-of-the-art football facility, it was impossible not to be guiltily impressed, a feeling that will no doubt recur throughout this tournament, knowing the human cost that has gone into building these grounds.

World Cup opening ceremonies are nothing like those at Olympic Games and scarcely leave much of a lasting cultural impression, but there was particular intrigue surrounding this one, Qatar’s first chance to show the face it wants to the world, having grown frustrated at its unflattering portrayal by outsiders.

Visually, it was hugely impressive and in moments managed to hone in on the significance of bringing the tournament to this part of the world for the first time, so much of which has been overshadowed by the criticism of bringing it to this country, specifically. To hear segments of a ceremony of this magnitude and this global audience conducted solely in Arabic was unique and it is little surprise that a crowd which so quickly lost interest once their team went behind were at its most enthusiastic, swelled by national pride, when being addressed directly by the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

One piece of historical footage showed the Emir’s father, the former ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, playing football in the desert with friends in his youth, the idea, clearly, being to knock back suggestions that Qatar discovered the beautiful game only after buying the right to host its biggest tournament. It was not quite the Queen jumping out of a helicopter, but Sheikh Hamad’s blushing grin as he signed a replica, retro jersey offered the ceremony a human moment, albeit from on high.

Many empty seats were visible after half-time. (PA)
Many empty seats were visible after half-time. (PA)

Much of the rest of it carried tired, predictable messages about unity and togetherness, about football bringing people together. Delivered by Morgan Freeman, the legendary actor who once played God, the words seemed a little rich, coming the day after self-styled messiah Infantino had gone on the attack against Europe and the West.

And then, as in Infantino’s rambling monologue, we eventually got to the football, by which point the headlines had already been made.

It was a strange game, devoid of any flow and made up largely of isolated incidents that seemed to occur out of nothing and usually involved the erratic Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb and Enner Valencia, the Ecuador captain. Valencia scored twice, had a goal disallowed, won a penalty and limped off injured, but it was still a tight call as to which of the pair had the more eventful night.

In a footballing sense, we can at least bank on there being several more memorable ones to come.