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Reporter's Notebook

At the World Cup, a timid start, on and off the pitch, for hosts Qatar

As host nation becomes first in soccer tournament’s history to lose its opening game, locals and incoming fans don’t seem sure how, or even whether, to embrace a compromised event

Qatari locals walk down Doha's Corniche Street following their country's opening-match loss to Ecuador, November 20, 2022. (Ash Obel/Times of Israel)
Qatari locals walk down Doha's Corniche Street following their country's opening-match loss to Ecuador, November 20, 2022. (Ash Obel/Times of Israel)

DOHA, Qatar – As the wheels on Sunday afternoon’s flight from Amman slammed into the warm Doha tarmac, a burst of excited chanting rose from those on board. “Viva Mexico,” and “Come on England,” they exclaimed, as the Boeing Dreamliner began taxiing toward the terminal. It proved to be a somewhat atypical bout of enthusiasm.

On Sunday, the anticipated biggest party in the world rolled into an unlikely corner of the Arabian peninsula, but the locals, as well as over one million fans flying in for the spectacle, seem unsure how to approach it all.

At the 2018 World Cup, Moscow’s Nikolskaya Street, adjacent to Red Square, became the unofficial go-to area for fans looking to soak up the smorgasbord of international culture that only a World Cup tournament can provide. Each of the 32 competing nations set up camp along the pedestrian shopping strip, and each tried to creatively out-sing the next.

But over four years later, on opening night in Doha, the Corniche, Qatar’s attempt at its very own Nikolskaya, was largely empty of people and entirely devoid of spirit – perhaps symptomatic of the moral ambiguity that has plagued the 2022 World Cup since FIFA’s former president Sepp Blatter controversially pulled the name Qatar out of an envelope 12 years ago.

The mood was not aided by the host nation’s timid performance in its match with Ecuador, going down 2-0 — and finishing the game in front of a half-empty stadium — making Qatar the first host nation in World Cup history to lose its opening game.

Evidently reconciled to the defeat after goals in the 16th and 31st minutes, many locals chose to head for the exits as early as half-time to at least avoid the crowded highways and trains.

A view of the stands at the end of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group A football match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha on November 20, 2022. (Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

Qatar next faces African heavyweights Senegal on Friday, followed by a clash with a star-studded Holland side on Tuesday, November 26, making its prospects of progressing to the Round of 16 extremely slim.

Abdul, a Qatari native dressed in the traditional white gown and red headscarf, told The Times of Israel after the Ecuador defeat: “We are sad. It’s the opening day, and the first match for Qatar. Hopefully,” he managed, “the next match they will win.”

Ecuador celebrates its opening goal by Enner Valencia during the World Cup Group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

In the UK, the BBC chose to boycott broadcasting the opening ceremony on Sunday evening, instead spending that valuable air time criticizing Qatar for its human rights record, specifically its treatment of migrant workers and suppression of LGBTQ rights.

The Orwellian-sounding “Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy,” the body established by the Qatari authorities to prepare for and execute the world’s most-watched sports tournament, has completed incredible infrastructure projects in Doha. The international criticism has focused on the human cost of the achievement — notably including the up to 6,500 foreign workers said to have lost their lives since Qatar won its bid.

Projects include an efficient city-wide subway system, repaved and expanded highways, and a new international airport, crowned by a picturesque skyline that comes to life as night falls. The skyscrapers are adorned with images of the world’s most famous soccer players, each depiction rising hundreds of meters high.

Skyscrapers in Doha, Qatar, display images of the world’s best soccer players, November 20, 2022. (Times of Israel/Ash Obel)

With fancy new infrastructure at every turn, the Qatari authorities have also spared no expense to ensure no harm befalls it, placing security guards on every street corner in the city, standing there day and night.

Customer service has also clearly been prioritized, with a smiling face asking “How are you, sir?” to shoppers as they enter stores, and “Have a good evening” as they leave (with a much lighter wallet).

In a Doha supermarket I visited, an employee was stationed in every aisle, waiting to help shoppers select their breakfast cereals and soft drinks.

The off-field goal, plainly, is to present Qatar as a safe and friendly tourist destination.

An army of airport staff wait patiently to assist the few passengers arriving at Hamad International Airport on November 20, 2022. (Ash Obel/Times of Israel)

But it can be difficult to enjoy the sights, lights, and luxuries knowing the price of putting on the show.

Fireworks explode in the sky in Doha on November 20, 2022, during the opening day of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football tournament. (ADEL SENNA / AFP)

As the group stage gathers, and many hundreds of thousands more fans descend on the city, the raucous international party that most associate with World Cups may yet materialize.

But Blatter’s compromised choice of this host nation, with its troubling rights record and policies, is clearly not going to be obscured, no matter how polite the welcome, or how thrilling the soccer.

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