Qatar made their FIFA World Cup debut by losing to Ecuador on Sunday, but as the first Middle Eastern nation to host the tournament, it has sparked a wave of pride across the region.
From cafes in Erbil to pubs in Istanbul and stadiums in Gaza City, excited spectators gathered in front of TV screens ahead of a tournament’s opening match, hoping to shatter stereotypes of the Islamic world.
At a café in the city of Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, fans new and old sipped tea while debating the merits of the participating teams and reflecting on the world’s biggest football competition coming to Qatar.
Rasul Farid, 26, said he first saw a World Cup in 2010 when South Africa hosted the finals.
“I did not expect [in 2010] that one day an Arab country would host the World Cup,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s positive that the World Cup in an Arab country will give a different impression of us, away from clichés. I am here to support the Qatar team.”
Khalil Ahmed, 29, said he first saw the international football festival in 2006 when it was held in Germany.
“I didn’t think that one day it would be in an Arab country. I thought the World Cup was just for the West and America – not for us.”
Ali Kareem, 22, watched the opening game in Iskan, a traditional neighborhood in Erbil known for streaming football matches. His earliest footballing memories are from 2007 when Iraq won the Asian Cup and he started partying with his father and friends in the streets.
“I am in love [football]and we are very happy that the World Cup is taking place in an Arab country,” he said, adding that he would support Brazil.
In Turkey, football fans prepared to watch this year’s tournament despite the country’s national team failing to qualify for the 32-team tournament.
In the heart of Istanbul’s lively Beyoglu district, the Corner Irish Pub was packed with football fans on Sunday night watching the opening match of the World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador. There was a mix of tourists and locals and most people seemed to be pro-Ecuador.
“We show everyone [the matches] in English throughout the month,” Zafer, the pub’s manager, told Al Jazeera, adding that his money was on Argentina to win the trophy.
Ersoy Ozdem, a veteran sports journalist, told Al Jazeera he will support Argentina throughout the competition. He said he believed the World Cup could be staged in any country, but highlighted issues over the timing of the competition, which is due midway through the European club season.
“In my opinion, the World Cup can’t be held in November because we’re not used to it,” said Özdem, adding that a particularly large number of players are currently injured and unable to play.
Tulay Demir, a Turkish journalist and author who grew up in the Netherlands, supports the Oranje.
“Although I think Brazil will win the cup, as a half-Dutch I’m very happy to know that my country is there,” Demir told Al Jazeera. Demir will travel to the Netherlands this week and plans to watch her team play Ecuador at her friend’s bar in the town of Dieren on Wednesday.
It is very valuable to Demir that the World Cup is being held in a Muslim country, but she expressed concern about the main controversy surrounding the event – the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.
The Guardian newspaper reported that since 2010, when Qatar won the World Cup, 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in the country.
The Qatari government has stated that these figures, provided by each country’s embassies, include deaths of people not working on World Cup projects, it said.
The government said there were 37 deaths among workers directly linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums between 2014 and 2020, three of which were “work-related”.
“The World Cup being organized in this region is very prestigious, but the deaths of many migrant workers have cast a shadow over it,” said Demir.
“The lives lost have severely damaged Qatar’s image. It had a very good opportunity and I don’t think they made good use of it,” she added.
An opening ceremony was held in the besieged Gaza Strip to mark the first day of the World Cup in Gaza City.
Hundreds of Palestinian fans and athletes gathered at the Palestine Stadium Hall, where fans raised the flags of Qatar and Palestine amid cheers in support of the Qatar team.
Murad Badr, 42, said he came here today with his children as a fan, athlete and sports enthusiast.
“I have been following the World Cup since 1994. This is the first year it has been hosted by an Arab country and the hosting is wonderful. The preparations are impressive.”
Badr told Al Jazeera Qatar has made great efforts to build stadiums and infrastructure.
“Today we came to support Qatar and the rest of the four participating Arab teams: Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.”
Abdullah al-Saqqa, 37, a Palestinian table tennis international, told Al Jazeera he was fortunate to have visited Qatar three times before.
“From 2006 to 2022, between those years, there was a quantum leap in the state of Qatar. Qatar is proving itself – its emir, its government and its people,” al-Saqqa said.
“Everyone sees that Qatar deserves this crowning and can send a message to the world that we, as Arabs and Muslims, are capable of standing on the side of the international superpowers.”
Shahd Salouha, 23, followed the opening activities of the World Cup with great interest.
“I love football so much that if there’s a power cut at home, I’ll listen to the games on the radio. Sometimes I find a spot outside the house so I don’t miss matches,” she said.
Salouha says her favorite national team is Brazil, but she also likes Spain and Germany.
“I’ve been following the World Cup preparations for a whole year and everything I see is very impressive. The museums, stadiums and preparations are great,” she said.
“This is a source of pride for all of us Arabs, and it gives us a sense of pride that this is an Arab and Muslim country of such great ability.”
Salouha also expressed her gratitude for Qatar’s supporting role in the Gaza Strip.
“It is known that Qatar is one of the countries that support Gaza the most, so they have all the love and respect, and it’s a great country in word and deed.”
Maram Humaid contributed to the coverage from Gaza City. Paul Osterlund contributed reporting from Istanbul. Meethak AL Khatib and Stella Martany contributed reporting from Erbil.