- Qatar aims to bolster its credentials as global player and display strength to regional rivals.
- Opening ceremony in a tent-shaped stadium will be held ahead of first match.
- State media says UN secretary-general and Algeria’s president arrived.
DOHA: The World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Sunday in a high-stakes event for the tiny nation which has faced a barrage of criticism and staked its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament, the first held in the Middle East.
The opening ceremony in a tent-shaped stadium will be held at 1440 GMT, ahead of the first match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador.
Few details were available on heads of state attending, but state media said the UN secretary-general and Algeria’s president arrived on Saturday.
Onstage, the South Korean singer Jungkook, of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new official tournament song called Dreamers alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi, FIFA said in a statement early Sunday.
Qatar and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to action on the pitch after the hosts faced mounting criticism over its treatment of foreign workers, LGBT rights and social restrictions, including banning alcohol at stadiums and public displays of affection. Organisers have also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.
The smallest nation to hold soccer’s biggest global event, Qatar, a wealthy gas producer, aims to bolster its credentials as a global player, and display strength to rivals in the region.
As some visitors savoured their first sips of beer at the launch of the FIFA Fan Festival on Saturday in central Doha, hundreds of workers, all men, gathered in a sports arena in an industrial zone on the city’s edges where no alcohol was being served. They will be able to watch matches there.
“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,” Ghanian national Kasim, a security guard who has worked in Qatar for four years, told Reuters.
Neville, a 24-year-old Kenyan who studied nutrition, and compatriot Willy, also 24 and a Manchester City fan, were hired to work as security guards during the event. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it’s definitely worth it,” said Neville.
Many of the migrant workers who toiled to prepare Qatar’s tournament infrastructure will watch from the sidelines, priced out of the stadiums. Qatar has come under intense criticism for its treatment of migrant workers but points to labour reforms aimed at protecting them from exploitation and says the system is a work in progress.
Crowd control will be key with some 1.2 million visitors expected to visit, more than a third of Qatar’s population, a majority of whom are foreign workers.
Labourers were putting final touches on outdoor gardens and sidewalks on Saturday and carting construction material to a site near the National Museum, where dozens of people, including fans in Argentina jerseys, milled about.
Qatar has seen a construction frenzy fueled by the gas wealth that has changed the face of Doha in the run-up to the tournament, the most expensive World Cup in history organised at a cost of $220 billion.
In the renovated Msheireb area, now home to high-end shops, some not yet open, and hipster coffee shops, clusters of men in thobes, the Qatari national dress, walked by singing and chanting.
As there is a limited number of hotels within Qatar, fans will also be flying in on daily shuttle flights from neighbouring cities like Dubai.
“When we came in it was like a bit of a work site,” England fan Neil Gahan said in an area in Doha housing fan portacabins.
The cabins were “not brilliant”, he said, but there were sports facilities nearby and massive screens. “Yeah, I think it’s going to be alright”.