Sunday morning will see the start of the long-awaited first game of the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Al Bayt Stadium will be the stage where hosts Qatar takes on Ecuador. In addition to the usual hype of the opening game, these two teams will enter the field under a cloud of a rumor – eight Ecuadorian players allegedly received bribes to benefit Qatar. This will be only one of the several off-field issues surrounding this competition.
What makes Qatar different?
Qatar will be a host nation like no other. The small Gulf country has a total population of under three million people – the smallest country to ever host this event. Culturally speaking, Qatar will also present challenges to teams, the press, and foreign visitors. And these challenges have put FIFA in an uncomfortable position – support the host nation or its detractors. Even disgraced former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter said recently that selecting Qatar to host the World Cup was a mistake.
The government officially banned alcohol from all eight stadiums. FIFA expected the Qatari officials to issue an exemption, just as Brazil did in 2014. This decision was expected all along, and yet it was strangely delayed. Additionally, reporters may experience a heightened level of scrutiny, as was experienced recently by a Danish television crew.
FIFA boss Gianni Infantino mentioned “gays and migrant workers” during a press conference earlier this week. He included these vulnerable populations to highlight the universality of the World Cup. Yet, under Qatari law, being openly gay is punishable by law. And the accusations of gross abuses and deaths of migrant workers in Qatar’s various WC projects are numerous. Only 15% of Qatar’s population are citizens, which places that selected segment at the top of a de-facto caste system.
Countries have expressed concerns over Qatar’s alleged and proven human rights violations. Denmark’s national team, for instance, will wear black jerseys in one of their three group-stage matches. Similarly, the United States will sport a rainbow-themed crest on its jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community. Other teams are also expected to protest the host nation in more subtle and veiled ways.
The host nation has its work cut out for them. Qatar has both an accessible and extremely competitive group. As it usually happens with the host nation, Qatar was spared facing a heavy favorite. Ecuador, Senegal, and Netherlands are Qatar’s rivals. The Dutch team barely missed being top-seeded in this World Cup, but history and a current 8th place in the FIFA ranking poise the Netherlands to dominate their group.
For the second spot, Senegal, Ecuador, and Qatar are at a similar level (their FIFA rankings are 18, 44, and 50, respectively.) Qatar has never qualified for a World Cup, but they are the current Asian champions – which speaks of their remarkable progress in recent years. Senegal lost their star player Sadio Mané due to an injury he suffered the first week in November. Hopes of his recovery vanished after a few days, and just this week the Bayern Munich striker was officially ruled out of Qatar. Mane’s absence brings Senegal’s level down significantly.
And then there is Ecuador. Their World Cup campaign has not officially started, and yet the South Americans made the news for the worst possible reason – eight of their players allegedly accepted bribes to favor Qatar in their opening match. This is a rumor that was picked up by a few big media outlets, but that has mostly been ignored by official sources. Whether said rumor can be proven or not, neither Qatar nor Ecuador can say there have not been distractions before their World Cup debut.