Qatar will finally get its home World Cup under way on Sunday, 12 years after the nation’s successful bid put into motion wide-ranging preparations which cost billions of dollars.
It is widely accepted the Gulf state has spent $200 billion on hosting soccer’s biggest event and Qatar will get its first glimpse at the final product at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor when the hosts take on Ecuador.
Organizers say that 2.9 million of the 3.1 million tickets have been sold and they will be expecting 60,000 seats to sell-out on Sunday.
The home team’s players have also been preparing tirelessly, spending months outside Qatar in isolated training camps, in an attempt to reach the knockout phase on their World Cup debut.
“Our situation is different [compared to other teams] and we have to work with what we’ve got,” coach Felix Sanchez told a press conference on the eve of the tournament.
“It’s true it’s a massive sacrifice, many time away from our families and abroad and this shows the commitment of the players to compete and it all starts tomorrow,” he said.
The Group A match, which was moved forward from Monday to allow Qatar to play in the opening game, will be an acid test for the hosts both on and off the field.
FIFA and the tournament organizers will be hoping the kick-off can help put several controversies aside.
Qatar has faced criticism over its human rights record and the environmental fallout from holding the event.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino had called on World Cup teams to “focus on football” in a letter earlier this month and accused critics in Western countries of “hypocrisy” on Saturday.
Qatar will be wary of following the dozen years of work and spending with the embarrassment of becoming only the second host country to crash out in the first round.
To avoid joining South Africa in that exclusive club, Sanchez’s men have been tasked with getting out of a group also containing European giants the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.
A win against the less-regarded Ecuador would make those next two matches appear less daunting.
“On paper, they [Qatar’s three opponents] should get the three points, but we of course are here to show our people that we can be a competitive team,” Sanchez said.
“We’ll bring our ‘A’ game and play our football, and try to bring joy,” he said. “We know that it will be a great challenge for us but we’re very eager to play this match and are very happy to be here.”
Qatar has improved on the field since winning the World Cup bid, beating Japan in the 2019 Asian Cup final and finishing third in the Arab Cup last year.
Results have slipped in recent months, though, with a 1-1 draw against Jamaica and 3-0 defeat by Croatia’s Under-23 team particularly disappointing.
Ecuador will be no pushovers after coming through the notoriously difficult South American qualifying.
“We think we have the same chance as Qatar for this opening match,” said Ecuador’s midfielder Moises Caicedo.
“We know how Qatar play, they’re strong, they’re powerful. I know this will be a very difficult game tomorrow,” he said.
After the tumultuous build-up, capped by Friday’s surprise U-turn on the sale of beer in stadiums, Qatar’s players will be aiming to take the limelight and ease the scrutiny on off-field issues.