The World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday with the Muslim nation, which faced a barrage of criticism over its treatment of foreign workers, LGBT rights and social restrictions, staking its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrived at the stadium flanked by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, to a roaring crowd, and took their seats alongside other Arab leaders ahead of the host nation facing Ecuador in Group A.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, speaking at the opening ceremony, said the event gathered people of all nationalities and beliefs.
“From Qatar, from the Arab world, I welcome everyone to the World Cup 2022,” he said. “How lovely it is that people can put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together all at once.”
The opening ceremony featured three camels, American actor Morgan Freeman and a performance of a new tournament song called Dreamers featuring singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS, alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the presidents of Egypt, Turkey and Algeria, as well as the United Nations Secretary-General, were among the leaders at the in a tent-shaped stadium ahead of the first match.
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Qatar, which has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination, and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to action on the pitch. Organizers also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights. The tournament, the first held in the Middle East and the most expensive in its history, is a culmination of Qatar’s soft power push, after a 3-1/2 year boycott by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain which ended in 2021.
The UAE, whose rapprochement with Doha has been slower than that of Riyadh and Cairo, sent its vice president who is also ruler of Dubai, where many World Cup fans have opted to stay. For the first time, a direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Doha landed in Qatar on Sunday despite the absence of formal bilateral ties, in a deal brokered by FIFA to bring both Palestinians and Israelis to the tournament. The Gulf state’s Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah, in remarks on state media, said Qatar was reaping the benefits of years of “hard work and sound planning.”
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On Saturday, FIFA’s Infantino rounded on European critics of Qatar, saying engagement was the only way to improve rights, while Doha has also pointed to labor reforms. Denmark’s and Germany’s team captains will wear One Love armbands as they prepare to compete in a conservative Muslim state where same-sex relationships are illegal. Organizers say all are welcome while warning against public affection.
Gas exporter Qatar is the smallest nation to host soccer’s biggest global event. Crowd control will be key with some 1.2 million visitors expected — more than a third of its population.