DOHA, Qatar —The 2022 World Cup begins Sunday in Qatar with the host country’s national soccer team taking on Ecuador. In a world divided in so many ways, the tournament is a rare uniter.
FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, projects five billion people will tune in, again making the month-long event the most-watched-sports spectacle on the planet.
The start also signals the end of a 12-year buildup that’s been more complicated and controversial, than perhaps any World Cup before.
In this high-stakes event for the Muslim nation which has faced a barrage of criticism including over human rights and alcohol restrictions the tournament is the most expensive in its history. It marks a culmination of Qatar’s soft power push, after emerging from a 3-1/2 year boycott by Saudi Arabia and its allies that ended in 2021.
For the first time, a direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Doha landed in Qatar on Sunday despite the absence of formal bilateral ties, in a deal brokered by FIFA to carry both Palestinians and Israelis to the tournament.
On Sunday at Al Bayt Stadium in dusty weather with temperatures at some 30 degrees Celsius, people began filing inside, including Qatari supporters in crisp white thobes and women in black abayas.
A troupe performed a sword dance. Onstage, singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new tournament song, alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi.
The Gulf state’s Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah, in remarks on state media, said Qatar was reaping benefits of years of “hard work and sound planning”.
Qatar – which has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination – and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to action on the pitch after criticism over foreign workers’ rights, LGBT rights and social restrictions. Organisers have also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.
On Saturday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino rounded on European critics of Qatar, saying engagement was the only way to improve rights, while Doha has also pointed to labour reforms.
“Let’s start with the migrant workers. We are told many, many lessons from some Europeans, the western world. I am European. I actually am. I think for what we Europeans have been doing in the last 3,000 years, around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people.”
Gas exporter Qatar is the smallest nation to host soccer’s biggest global event. Crowd control will be key with some 1.2 million visitors expected – more than a third of its population.
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