Doha: The World Cup began in Qatar on Sunday as a high-stakes event for the Muslim nation, which has faced criticism including over human rights as it stakes its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament.
In a show of Arab solidarity, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the presidents of Egypt and Algeria will join political leaders at the opening ceremony at the tent-shaped stadium at 5:40 p.m. (1440 GMT), ahead of the first match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador. There will also be the United Nations Secretary-General.
The tournament, held for the first time in the Middle East and the costliest in its history, marks the culmination of Qatar’s soft power push, emerging from a 3-1/2-year boycott by three Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, that ended in 2021.
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, a tournament brokered by FIFA to carry both Palestinians and Israelis. At Al Bayt Stadium in dusty weather with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, people began pouring in, including Qatari supporters in crisp white throbs and women in black abayas. The troupe performed a sword dance.
On stage, Jungkook, vocalist of the K-pop boy band BTS, will perform a new tournament song with Qatari singer Fahd Al-Qubaisi. Commenting on state media, the Gulf state’s deputy prime minister Khaled al-Attiyah said Qatar was reaping the benefits of “years of hard work and good planning”.
Qatar – which has denied allegations of abuse of workers and discrimination – and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to act on the pitch after criticism over foreign workers’ rights, LGBT rights, and social restrictions. Organizers have also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.
On Saturday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino hit out at European critics of Qatar, saying engagement was the only way to improve rights, while Doha also pointed to labor reforms.
The team captains of Denmark and Germany will wear One Love armbands as they prepare to compete in a conservative Muslim state where same-sex relationships are illegal. Warning against public affection, the organizers say everyone is welcome.