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AL KHOR, Qatar — The $220 billion World Cup reached its climax after 12 years of anticipation and controversy, with autocrats and the world watching on a Sunday night that for a while was all about Qatar.
It was the global stage this petrostate sought long ago – the dramatic opening ceremony, the blazing fireworks display from the top of Al Bayt Stadium. It was a moment of affirmation, of arrival, of legitimacy, of belonging. It was a celebration of flag-waving and cheating and cheers for Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir.
Then the game actually started. A soccer ball rolled. And reality hit hard.
Qatar, the football team, physically overwhelmed and thoroughly overwhelmed, started their own party with a 2-0 loss to Ecuador that had fans flocking to the exit well before the final whistle.
They waited months, years, decades for their country’s debut on the sport’s biggest stage and for the first World Cup in the Middle East. After 45 minutes, however, some had seen enough. Their white thobes, the traditional Qatari male outfit, poured out of the goals at half-time and in increasing numbers in the second half. Remarkably, at full-time, the majority of the 60,000+ seats seemed empty.
Qatar created a moment of rejoicing for the tens of thousands – conceding a goal in the third minute which was then stunningly knocked over via video review and causing the biggest riot of the evening.
But then the hosts fell back and were defeated by an all-round better team. They were the first World Cup hosts to lose an opening game.
“People were really looking forward to this game,” Qatar’s Spain head coach Felix Sanchez said through a translator after the game. “We’re sorry because we couldn’t contribute to this great atmosphere.”
One-time World Cup 2014 star Enner Valencia scored both goals after scoring just once for Ecuador in the previous 12 months. Up and down the field and side by side, Premier League players and Bundesliga players have bulldozed and declassified a Qatar squad drawn entirely from the local league.
In doing so, the Ecuadorians made it clear that Qatar’s two-decade football project has not quite met its 2022 deadline. Its state-of-the-art, multi-billion-dollar residential academy could not assemble a World Cup-caliber team from a population of just around 300,000.
But it got the opportunity. There was a beautifully choreographed pregame ceremony and Morgan Freeman as the live narrator. It has all the glamorous sights and sounds associated with the World Cup irrevocably associated with its name. Qatar.
It has weathered criticism from the West and weathered an unprecedented storm. It has won the battle for sportswear. “Today the best FIFA World Cup ever begins in Qatar,” proclaimed the Gulf Times on Sunday morning, and even the fans who only got to watch 75 minutes are sure to celebrate.
Qatar’s many problems now include on-pitch struggles
The glaring absurdity of this World Cup rose along Al Shamal Road, a major thoroughfare that connects Doha and through the dessert, past rubble and excavators and nothing, and up to Al Khor. The landscape becomes increasingly barren until a massive Bedouin tent, Al-Bayt Stadium, looms in the distance through miles of smog and dust.
It was built by people, migrants who are no longer here; and for other people, Qataris, who crawled down the highway in SUVs on Sunday. That’s why this World Cup was so scandalous. But for better or for worse, it started on a cool, windy evening.
Fathers in Tobes and giddy children in maroon Qatar shirts gazed up at the stadium in awe. The white of the thobes mixed with colour, all sorts of colours, in the vast open spaces around the arena. There was the bright yellow of Ecuador, but also a colorful mix of fans from at least 16 different nations, including the USA. And there was at least a sporadic festive atmosphere that only a World Cup can create. There was a dancing, singing circle of Portuguese. There were Ecuadorians posing with Qataris. There was music, excitement and wonder.
There were also the inescapable reminders of the inequality that underlies both Qatar and this World Cup. Hundreds of migrants, mostly South Asians, stood outside an entrance for hours – while waiting for work concessions. Meanwhile, men on camels and horses lined another entrance to greet FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the Emir, among others. Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman joined them in a luxury box.
Surrounding the cavernous stadium were probably 40,000 Qataris out of the 67,372 announced participants – and they were by no means representative of the nation they had come to greet. Spend a week in Doha, anywhere outside of the city center, and you’ll meet the Indians, Nepalese, Kenyans, Ugandans and more who come to work. Migrants and children of migrants make up almost 90% of Qatar’s population. The affluent portion of Qatar that is actually Qatar — those who enjoy the exclusive benefits of citizenship that are nearly impossible for non-locals to obtain — is razor thin compared to most countries in the world.
And that was especially Qatar’s Soccer Problem on Sunday evening. By the turn of the century it set out to create an internationally competitive team with boundless wealth but a population essentially the size of Iceland. And predictably, it seems to have failed.
Qatar’s aggressive football project strikes back to earth
Qatar had initially attempted to build competitive sports teams by importing talent, as it has built most of its nation. It lined up Bulgarian weightlifters and Kenyan runners. It tried to field Brazilian footballers – which prompted FIFA to change their eligibility requirements. Since 2004, football players must be born, have roots or have lived there for five years in the country they wish to represent. With imports banned, Qatar turned to an unfamiliar option: domestic manufacturing.
In 2004, by emir decree, Qatar established the Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art national sports school carefully designed to produce professional athletes. Its massive dome, the largest of its kind, houses a FIFA-approved soccer field (in addition to several outdoor areas), a dozen other Olympic-quality sports facilities, classrooms, and chic residences. His scouts hop through land as big as Connecticut. The best are taken from their local teams as pre-teens and placed in the academy, where they train under experienced European coaches, study on scholarships and have every possible chance to get promoted to the men’s national team.
They’re there because Qatar hovered around No. 100 in the FIFA men’s rankings for much of the last decade and as recently as 2017. His professional clubs weren’t producing enough top players. So instead the government paid a bunch of Spaniards and other foreigners to do the job. They paid performance coaches and data analysts. The World Cup was coming up and they needed to avoid embarrassment.
A few years later, the multi-billion dollar project finally began to bear fruit. One of those Spanish coaches, Sanchez, who was lured away from Barcelona’s famous academy in 2006, took charge of the senior team and made amazing strides. With seven Aspire graduates in the starting XI, Qatar stunned Japan to win the 2019 Asian Cup. It also performed admirably as a guest at the 2021 Gold Cup. It climbed into the world top 50 in hopes of a respectable World Championship performance that would not tarnish the broader show.
On Sunday, however, it struck back to Earth.
Three sides of the stadium, built specifically for the day and a few others over several years, began to empty during a boring second half.
The Ecuadorians who filled the fourth end jumped for joy.
They sang “queremos cerveza‘, ‘We want beer’, which Qatari organizers had controversially banned. (Only Budweiser non-alcoholic was available for $8.25.)
one taunted Qatari fans with a “money” gesture.
They had comprehensively crashed the long-awaited party.