AL KHOR, Qatar — The $220 billion World Cup climaxed after 12 years of anticipation and controversy, with autocrats and the world watching, on a Sunday night that, for a while, was all about Qatar.
It was the global stage this petrostate long ago sought — the dramatic opening ceremony, the spouting fireworks from the top of Al Bayt Stadium. It was a moment of validation, of arrival, of legitimacy, of belonging. It was a celebration, replete with flag-waving and giddiness and on-cue cheers for Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir.
Then the game actually started. A soccer ball rolled. And reality struck with force.
Qatar the soccer team, physically overmatched and thoroughly overwhelmed, kicked off its own party with a 2-0 loss to Ecuador that had fans streaming for exits well before the final whistle.
They waited months, years, decades for their country’s debut on sport’s biggest stage, and for the first World Cup in the Middle East. After 45 minutes, though, some had seen enough. Their white thobes, the traditional Qatari male outfit, flowed out of gates as early as halftime, and in growing numbers throughout the second half. By full-time, it seemed that a majority of the 60,000-plus seats were, remarkably, empty.
The stands — apart from the Ecuador sections — have significantly emptied out with 10 minutes to go pic.twitter.com/wA7XkkHwIY
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 20, 2022
Qatar generated one moment of glee for the tens of thousands — by conceding a third-minute goal, which was then bafflingly overturned by video review, drawing the biggest eruption of noise all evening.
But then the hosts receded, and succumbed, to an all-round better team. They became the first World Cup hosts to lose an opener.
“People were very much looking forward to this game,” Qatar’s Spanish head coach, Felix Sanchez, said postgame through a translator. “We are sorry, because we couldn't contribute to this great atmosphere.”
Enner Valencia, erstwhile star of the 2014 World Cup, scored both goals after scoring only once for Ecuador over the previous 12 months. Up and down the field, and side to side, Premier League players and Bundesliga players bulldozed and outclassed a Qatari squad drawn entirely from the local league.
In doing so, the Ecuadorians stated clearly that Qatar’s two-decade soccer project didn’t quite meet its 2022 deadline. Its state-of-the-art, multibillion-dollar residential academy couldn’t quite pull together a World Cup-caliber team from a population that includes around only 300,000 citizens.
But it did get the occasion. It got a wonderfully choreographed pregame ceremony, and Morgan Freeman as a live narrator. It got all the glamorous sights and sounds associated with the World Cup irrevocably associated with its name, Qatar.
It has endured the West’s criticism, and weathered an unprecedented storm. It has won the sportswashing battle. “Best ever FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar today,” the Gulf Times proclaimed on Sunday morning, and even the fans who could only sit through 75 minutes of it will surely still celebrate it.
Qatar's many problems now include struggles on the pitch
The striking absurdity of this World Cup rose along Al Shamal Road, a main highway that cuts out of Doha and through the desert, past rubble and excavators and nothingness, and up to Al Khor. The landscape gets more barren as you go — until, in the distance, a massive Bedouin tent-style structure, the Al Bayt Stadium, appears through miles of smog and dust.
It was built by people, migrants, who aren’t here anymore; and for other people, Qataris, who crawled in SUVs down the highway toward it on Sunday. Which is why this World Cup has been so scandalous. But for better or worse, on a cool, windy evening, it began.
Dads in thobes and giddy kids in maroon Qatar jerseys gazed up at the stadium in awe. The white of the thobes blended with color, all sorts of color, in the expansive open spaces around the arena. There was the bright yellow of Ecuador, but also a vibrant mix of fans from at least 16 different nations, including the U.S. And there was, at least in spurts, the type of festive atmosphere that only a World Cup can create. There was a dancing, chanting circle of Portuguese. There were Ecuadorians posing with Qataris. There was music, excitement and amazement.
There were also the inescapable reminders of the inequality that underpins both Qatar and this World Cup. There were hundreds of migrants, mostly South Asians, standing outside one entrance for hours — as they waited to work concessions. Meanwhile, there were men on camelback and horseback lining another entrance to greet FIFA president Gianni Infantino and the Emir, among others. Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman joined them in a luxury box.
All around the cavernous stadium, there were probably 40,000 Qataris out of the 67,372 announced in attendance — and they were not at all representative of the nation they came to salute. Spend a week in Doha, in any non-downtown district, and you’ll meet the Indians, Nepalis, Kenyans, Ugandans and more who come to work. Migrants and the children of migrants comprise almost 90% of the Qatari population. The wealthy sliver of Qatar that is actually Qatari — the ones who enjoy the exclusive benefits of citizenship, which is almost impossible for non-natives to obtain — is, compared to most countries in the world, razor thin.
And that, more than anything, was Qatar’s soccer problem on Sunday night. Around the turn of the century, it set out to create an internationally competitive team with limitless wealth but with, essentially, an Iceland-sized population. And predictably, it seems to have failed.
Qatar's aggressive soccer project thuds back to Earth
Qatar had initially attempted to build competitive sports teams like it built most of its nation, by importing talent. It fielded Bulgarian weightlifters and Kenyan runners. It tried to field Brazilian footballers — which led FIFA to change its eligibility rules. Since 2004, soccer players have had to be born in, have roots in, or have lived for five years in the country they wish to represent. So, with imports disallowed, Qatar turned to an unfamiliar option: domestic manufacturing.
In 2004, by emir decree, Qatar founded the Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art national sports school meticulously designed to produce pro athletes. Its vast dome, the largest of its kind, houses a FIFA-approved soccer pitch (in addition to several outdoors), a dozen other Olympic-quality sports facilities, classrooms and fancy residences. Its scouts hop around the Connecticut-sized country, screening a majority of the roughly 7,000 Qatari boys who play organized soccer, at ages as young as 6 or 7, according to reports. The best get plucked off their local teams as pre-teens and placed in the Academy, where they train under experienced European coaches, learn on scholarship, and get every chance imaginable to ascend to the men’s national team.
They are there because, for much of last decade and as late as 2017, Qatar hovered around No. 100 in the men’s FIFA rankings. Its professional clubs weren’t producing enough top players. So the government paid a bunch of Spaniards and other foreigners to do the work instead. They paid performance coaches and data analysts. The World Cup loomed, and they needed to avoid embarrassment.
Finally, with a few years to go, the multi-billion-dollar project began to bear fruit. One of those Spanish coaches, Sanchez, who was lured away from Barcelona’s famed academy in 2006, took charge of the senior team and made astounding progress. With seven Aspire graduates in its starting 11, Qatar stunned Japan to win the 2019 Asian Cup. It performed admirably as guests at the 2021 Gold Cup as well. It climbed into the world’s top 50, with hopes of a respectable World Cup showing that wouldn’t mar the broader show.
On Sunday, though, it thudded back to Earth.
Three sides of the stadium, built over multiple years specifically for this day and a few others, began to empty throughout a dull second half.
Ecuadorians, filling the fourth end, jumped for joy.
They had, comprehensively, crashed the long-awaited party.