By Steve Keating
AL KHOR, Qatar (Reuters) – Soccer took centre stage on Sunday as a World Cup shrouded in controversy prepares to kick off with a glitzy opening ceremony and host Qatar playing Ecuador in the first match to push aside the criticism which has dogged the showcase event.
Under a glaring sun, Qatari men in crisp white thobes and women in black shayla headdresses and abayhas began filing into the spectacular Al Bayt stadium designed to look like the tents used by nomads.
As host of the Middle East’s first World Cup the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is expected to welcome a star-studded guest list of celebrities and political leaders including Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the presidents of Egypt and Algeria.
Many of the labourers who toiled to build the eight stadiums will watch from the sidelines unable to afford the highest ticket prices ever for a World Cup but a lucky few will be sprinkled among the well-heeled audience having been gifted tickets by the England soccer team.
The controversy that has long surrounded the decision to award the tiny Gulf state the World Cup has built to a crescendo ahead of the tournament, with unrelenting scrutiny of its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBT+ community.
“We are ready,” Hakeem Ahmad told Reuters as he entered the stadium with his wife and two children. “Whatever happens on the pitch, the world should look kindly on us today.
“We have organised this party for you. If Qatar can perform well, that would be a bonus for us.
“We hope that after today people will see Qatar in a different light, for who we really are. It is time to talk positively about Qatar.”
Cathal Kelly, columnist for Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail, summed up the distractions.
“Once the first ball is kicked, no one cares if they’re holding this thing on a ceremonial burial ground or powering it with coal,” he wrote.
That will certainly be the hope of soccer’s governing body FIFA and Qatari organisers who have pleaded for critics to focus on the football and not let the sport be dragged into ideological or political battles.
“This is the first time I’ve come to a World Cup,” Wilmer Saltos, 35, a farmer, who has travelled from Guayaquil on the coast of Ecuador with his brother and sister told Reuters while waiting in the heat to enter the stadium.
“When we saw that Ecuador was opening the tournament, we thought we just had to be here. There are obviously big cultural differences, you can’t deny it.
“But for us, today is about the football, we just want to focus on the game.”
While Qatar is hosting one of sport’s biggest parties it will be a mostly alcohol free after officials decided to turn off the beer taps inside stadiums, drawing even more criticism.
Beer or no beer, Qataris and thousands of visiting fans have arrived ready to party with throngs packing the FIFA Fan Festival zones in central Doha along the city’s famed Corniche.
(Reporting by Steve Keating and Andy Cawthorne in Al Khor, Andrew Mills and Maya Gebeily in Doha, Editing by Ed Osmond)