AFP — The World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday as the month-long soccer showpiece finally got underway after a tortuous 12-year build-up dogged by off-field controversies.
Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was present in the impressive Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside of Doha, to watch the host nation’s squad face Ecuador.
In a breathless start to the match in the stadium shaped like a Bedouin tent, Ecuador’s Enner Valenica headed the ball into the net after three minutes but the goal was disallowed for offside.
Thirteen minutes later, Ecuador took the lead after Valencia dribbled around Qatari goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb, who grabbed his shin. The referee pointed to the spot, awarding a penalty kick, and Valencia coolly rolled it home for the score.
Valencia added a second goal to give Ecuador a 2-0 lead in the 31st minute, sealing the win.
The loss was a major disappointment for Qatar and will severely hamper the team’s ability to make it out of the first round. The other two teams in group A are European powerhouse the Netherlands and African champions Senegal.
South Africa is the only other host nation to ever get knocked out in the group stage of the tournament.
The Al Bayt venue is one of an array of new stadiums built for the tournament, which has cost Qatar an estimated $200 billion, the most expensive World Cup in history.
South Korean K-pop star Jung Kook headlined the 30-minute opening ceremony.
The list of foreign dignitaries included Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated a regional blockade of Qatar in 2017. FIFA president Gianni Infantino sat next to the Saudi leader.
FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Fireworks Opening
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World Cup organizers hope the start of the football will quell the controversies that have overshadowed preparations for the tournament ever since Qatar was named as host nation in a shock FIFA vote in 2010.
Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and the Gulf state’s human rights record have dominated the pre-tournament headlines.
On Saturday, Infantino went on the offensive in an aggressive rebuttal of the opprobrium aimed at the event, arguing that much of the criticism was unfair.
“This moral lesson-giving — one-sided — is just hypocrisy,” Infantino said. “I don’t want to give you any lessons of life, but what is going on here is profoundly, profoundly unjust.”
Controversies look certain to rumble on into the tournament even after the action starts.
Several European nations taking part — including England, Germany and Denmark — have said their players will wear rainbow-colored “OneLove” armbands in a gesture of solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.
The move raises the prospect of disciplinary action from FIFA, which has revealed plans to make its own alternative armbands available to teams.
Infantino insisted that all World Cup visitors would be welcome regardless of sexual orientation. Israel has told its LGBTQ fans to not display their identity in public.
“I’ve been speaking about this topic with the highest leadership,” he said. “They can confirm that I can confirm that everyone is welcome.”
Five-time champions Brazil were the last to touch down in Doha late on Saturday.
Defending champions France suffered another injury hammer blow early Sunday after confirmation that star striker and Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema had been forced out of the tournament with injury.
The Real Madrid star limped out of a training session at the French camp on Saturday evening with a left thigh injury.
The French federation later confirmed in a statement that the 34-year-old would require “a recovery period of three weeks” and would play no part in the competition.
“I am extremely sad for Karim, for whom this World Cup was a major objective,” said France coach Didier Deschamps, who has decided not to replace the forward.
“Despite this new blow for the France team I have full faith in my squad. We will do all we can to rise to the huge challenge that awaits us,” Deschamps said.
Benzema’s withdrawal comes with France already battling the injury absence of star midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
Belgium is also reeling from an injury blow after striker Romelu Lukaku was ruled out of the Red Devils’ opening two games as he continues to recover from a hamstring problem.