Qatar World Cup starts with stakes high for hosts

Qatar, which has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination, and FIFA hope the spotlight will now turn to action on the pitch.

General view during the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)
General view during the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)

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.

In a show of solidarity, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and the presidents of Egypt, Turkey and Algeria, as well as the United Nations Secretary-General, are among leaders at the opening ceremony in a tent-shaped stadium ahead of the first match between the hosts and Ecuador.

Qatar, which has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination, and FIFA hope the spotlight will now turn to action on the pitch. Organizers have also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.

Inside Al Bayt Stadium many seats were still vacant with gridlock on the expressway leading to the arena, where cheers went up as Qatar's team appeared for their opening match.

Onstage, singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new tournament song, alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi.

People in a boat on the Corniche Promenade are pictured ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Doha, Qatar, November 18, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)People in a boat on the Corniche Promenade are pictured ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Doha, Qatar, November 18, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)

The soccer 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 carry both Palestinians and Israelis to the tournament.

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inside the stadium before the match, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani inside the stadium before the match, Al Khor, Qatar, November 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)

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."

On Saturday, FIFA president Gianni 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 relations are illegal. Organizers say all are welcome while warning against public affection.

Fans arrive in Qatar for games

Throngs of fans were already arriving in Qatar but the main rush will be later this week.

Daniel Oordt from Holland, clad in orange, told Reuters there was a feeling of "constant pressure around you not to say the wrong thing or make the wrong move." "It's not a fun atmosphere to have at a World Cup."

Argentina fan Julio Cesar though said he expected a great atmosphere. "We'll drink before the match," he added after alcohol sales at stadiums were banned.

Visitors sipped beer at the FIFA Fan Festival in central Doha. Outside the city's edges, hundreds of workers gathered in a sports arena in an industrial zone, without alcohol. They can watch matches there, priced out of the stadiums many toiled to build along with other infrastructure for the event.

"Of course I didn't buy a ticket. They're expensive and I should use that money for other things - like sending it back home to my family," Ghanaian national Kasim, a security guard who has worked in Qatar for four years, told Reuters.

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.

Workers were putting final touches to Doha's landscape, including draping a purple tarpaulin over an unfinished building near the stadium where the final will be held.

At Lagoona Mall, residents were going about their business.

"I came now because I don't know how bad the traffic will be later this week," said Egyptian woman Esraa, grocery shopping

Iran's Hajsafi says hopes conditions change for Iran's people

“We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”

Ehsan Hajsafi

Iran defender Ehsan Hajsafi on Sunday spoke out about the difficult conditions for his people back home on the eve of his country's opening World Cup match against England, and said he hoped his team could show them respect and be their voice.

More than two months of protests in Iran, sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman while in custody of the country's morality police, have marked one of the boldest challenges to its clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In the latest show of solidarity by Iranian sportsmen and women amid a deadly crackdown by authorities, Hajsafi, who plays for AEK Athens, said it was undeniable the situation in Iran was not good and he hoped the national team could beat England and bring some happiness to the people.

"We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy," he told a news conference.

"We are here but it does not me we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.

"Whatever we have is from them and we have to fight, we have to perform the best we can and score goals and represent the people... I hope conditions change as to expectations of the people."

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday said Iran's "enemies" had so far failed to bring down the government but they had new tricks every day and may try to mobilize workers, as protests raged on at universities and in some cities.

Team Melli, as the national team is known, has been in the spotlight in the run-up to the World Cup, with anticipation over whether the players will use soccer's showpiece event as a platform to show solidarity with the protest movement.

The wave of unrest erupted in September after Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died while in detention of the morality police, after she was arrested for wearing clothes deemed "inappropriate."

Iran's government says foreign enemies and their agents are stoking the crisis.

According to the activist HRANA news agency, 402 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Friday, including 58 minors.

HRANA said 54 members of the security forces were also killed and more than 16,800 people have been arrested.