Qatar has waited 12 years for the World Cup – but day one did not go to plan

Fans being a little slow to return from their half-time libations is nothing new, and with the Al Bayt Stadium’s brand-new fridges packed with Bud Zero, who could blame them?

But as the clock ticked towards the hour mark, it became clear a good 10,000 Qatari fans in the crowd of 67,372 — the stadium’s capacity is listed by the organizers as 60,000 — had gone AWOL.

When this migration was pointed out on Twitter, some culturally-sensitive souls, perhaps inspired by the opening ceremony, suggested they might be praying. After all, the final call to prayer of the day had taken place during the tournament’s opening ceremony, so perhaps the fans were making up for missing that one.

thankfully, The Athletic was sitting next to three friendly journalists from the host country, one of whom had already told us he had studied in Sunderland. He did not say what he studied and it did not seem fair to ask.

“Excuse me. People on Twitter are wondering if the fans who aren’t here might be praying. Is that right?” we asked.

“Crying?”

“No, praying.”

“Oh, no. They just left. I left early, too, when Sunderland went down.”

So, there you have it. Despite all that divides us, we really are united through football.


There were thousands of empty seats long before the end of the World Cup’s opening game (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Right, what else did we learn from today’s opening match of this most anticipated World Cup?

Well, in chronological order, we can say that Al Khor, the town in which this game was played, is not Watford.

It had been suggested that all eight stadiums being used here were effectively part of the greater Doha conurbation, in the same way the aforementioned Hertfordshire town is linked to London. This comparison only works if we think Elstree, Bushey and Stanmore are deserts. That has been suggested before, too, but it is not true.

The Al Bayt Stadium, which looks like a giant Bedouin tent, is also the only World Cup venue not on the Doha Metro system. It might be an idea to move the tent a bit closer, then, as the traffic outside was truly world-class.


There were long queues outside the stadium before the first match (Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

That, of course, might explain why so many of the Qatari fans quit early. Presumably, they were the ones who could not book a slot at the stadium’s helipad. Even so, lads — and it was mainly lads — you have been waiting 12 years for this, it has cost at least $200billion (£168bn), numerous lives and it’s only 2-0 with half an hour to go.

But we will come back to all that.

There was a nice buzz about the place before the game. The yellow shirts of the Ecuador fans provided a nice splash of color and the hundreds of volunteer staff did their best to point people in the right direction, which was especially helpful as nobody had a clue where they were going.


Ecuador fans were able to celebrate a 2-0 win in their match against Qatar (Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

The opening ceremony was… why am I telling you what an opening ceremony was like? You’ve all seen them. If you are trying to complete the 92 of sports-adjacent mascot-and-music mash-ups, our Nick Miller has all the details.

The only thing perhaps worth noting is that the co-star of the show was the venerable Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman.

He was last seen in a football-related setting fluffing his lines in the US bid’s final presentation before the vote to decide who would host this World Cup in December 2010. He must have impressed someone back then, though.

Watching all this singing, dancing and appealing to mankind’s nobler instincts were an all-star cast of VVIPs in the posh seats.

First to take his seat was “Father Emir” Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ruled Qatar between 1995 and 2013, when he handed the reins over to his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.

Sheikh Hamad is perhaps best known outside Qatar for his celebrations when Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar’s card out of his envelope that day in Zurich nearly 12 years ago. He did not have much to cheer about here, though.

Sat next to him, on his right, was King Abdullah II of Jordan, and then there were two empty seats to his left, before we got to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Not just football royalty, then.

Those two seats were filled at exactly 5.40pm, 20 minutes to kick-off, when the main man, Emperor Gianni Infantino, arrived, alongside Sheikh Tamim.

The latter duly kissed his father’s hand and Infantino took his seat between the current rulers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It was not that long ago that the man who is better known as MBS was trying to trash Qatar’s economy, force FIFA to give Saudi some World Cup 2022 love and fill the canal that separates these two neighbors with toxic waste.

Water under the bridge now, it seems.


Gianni Infantino mingled with royalty, while also addressing those inside the stadium with a speech before kick-off (Photo: Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images)

MBS sat next to Infantino at the opening game of the previous World Cup, too. A glutton for punishment.

He saw his team trounced 5-0 by Russia then. He probably (secretly) enjoyed today’s match a bit more.

Once the dancers and Korean pop stars had been removed from the pitch (and hopefully taken a long way away), Sheikh Tamim gave a speech in Arabic before ending with a warm smile and the English words “welcome and good luck to all”.

Infantino, FIFA’s human C-3PO, then said much the same thing in Arabic, Spanish and English, before we all — David Beckham included — settled down for the football!


David Beckham is an ambassador for the Qatar World Cup (Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Oh, but did anyone tell the hosts’ team? Or the chaps in the semi-automated offside technology cupboard?

Because within minutes of the start, goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb flapped at a cross (it would become as much of a theme of the evening as the suspiciously choreographed chanting from the Doha All-Male Choir in the singing section behind his goal) and former West Ham and Everton forward Enner Valencia was nodding the ball in at the back post. Cue South American celebrations.

But then, as players returned to their positions and Qatar were about to kick off again, VAR ruled the goal out for offside.

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Speaking to reporters on Friday, FIFA’s refereeing supremo Pierluigi Collina had assured us the latest iteration of VAR would be quicker, more accurate and more readily explained to the watching public. That will be no; yes, maybe; and, erm, I’m still not sure I get it, then.

Whatever. Ecuador were all over Qatar, who have spent the past six months in camp together, training like a club side. A League Two club side by the looks of it.

Valencia would get his goal after 16 minutes when he went around Al Sheeb, only to be felled by a textbook tap tackle. There was to be no reVARsal of this decision and the 33-year-old, now with Fenerbahce in Turkey, picked himself up and tucked his penalty away. The watching Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have enjoyed that.

Ecuador’s night got better on 31 minutes, when Qatar’s stage-frightened defenders fluffed another clearance — right-back Angelo Preciado put the ball in the mixer and Valencia’s forehead did the rest.

That, in terms of the football, was pretty much that.

Ecuador spurned a couple of decent chances, without ever really getting out of third gear.

Qatar, the 2019 Asian champions, woke up, a bit. But they still did not manage a shot on goal. And the stadium was half-empty — sorry, let’s be positive, half-full — with 10 minutes to play.

Never mind, only African champions Senegal and the Netherlands, ranked eighth in the world, to come in Group A.

And at least everyone will now focus on how poor Qatar’s team are, how plastic their fans are and when MBS will get to watch his national team host one of these World Cup openers, rather than focus on all that negative stuff.

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(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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