The 2022 World Cup kicks off on Sunday at the Al Bayt stadium, inspired by a Bedouin tent – Copyright AFP/Archive ARIS MESSINIS
The World Cup kicks off with host nation Qatar facing Ecuador on Sunday, as the month-long soccer masterpiece finally gets underway after a tortuous 12-year preparation plagued by off-field controversy.
Foreign government officials, high-profile personalities and celebrities will be in the crowd as the first World Cup hosted in the Arab world opens at the Bedouin tent-inspired Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Doha.
The venue is one of a variety of new stadiums built for the tournament, which has cost Qatar an estimated $200 billion.
South Korean K-pop star Jung Kook will headline the 30-minute opening ceremony, which organizers said Sunday would reflect themes of “humanity, respect and inclusion.”
World Cup organizers hope the start of soccer will end the controversies that have cast a shadow over preparations for the tournament since Qatar was named the host nation in a surprise FIFA vote in 2010.
Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and the Gulf state’s human rights record have dominated the headlines leading up to the tournament.
On Saturday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino went on the offensive in an aggressive rebuttal of the opprobrium leveled at the event, arguing that much of the criticism was unfair.
“This one-sided moral lesson is just hypocrisy,” Infantino said.
“I don’t want to give you any life lessons, but what is happening here is deeply, deeply unfair.”
It seems certain that the controversies will continue in the tournament even after the action begins.
Several participating European nations, 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 possibility of disciplinary action by FIFA, which on Saturday revealed plans to make their own alternative armbands available to teams.
Infantino insisted that all World Cup visitors would be welcome regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I have been talking about this issue with the highest leadership,” he said. “Can you confirm that I can confirm that everyone is welcome.”
– Benzema hit, Brazil arrives –
All 32 teams competing in the World Cup have already arrived, with five-time champions Brazil the latest to touch down in Doha on Saturday night.
Defending champions France suffered another severe injury blow early Sunday after it was confirmed 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 night with a left thigh injury.
The French Federation later confirmed in a statement that the 34-year-old would require “a three-week recovery period” and would not participate in the competition.
“I am extremely sad for Karim, for whom this World Cup was an important goal,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
“Despite this new blow for the French team, I have full faith in my squad. We will do everything possible to rise to the enormous challenge that awaits us.”
Benzema’s withdrawal comes as France is already struggling with the injury absences of star midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante.
Brazil, which has been installed as a favorite by many bookmakers, was welcomed by hundreds of fans from South Asia and South America.