DOHA, Qatar – The first World Cup in the Middle East finally got underway on Sunday night with a flashy opening ceremony and a match between Qatar and Ecuador with no beer sales at the stadium.
The beer ban, imposed two days before the start of the tournament, was the latest controversial snag for a global event already under scrutiny over Qatar’s human rights record and the Emirates’ push to prepare the nation for the most compact World Cup in history .
And when Qatar lost their opening game to Ecuador 2-0, the fan zone in central Doha became a chaotic scene as tens of thousands of fans pushed against police barriers to enter the venue. Fans tried to access the closed area, which housed large screens to watch games and buy beers.
Home to 3 million people, most of them migrant workers, Qatar has spent more than $200 billion on improvements in the energy-rich country, which is about the size of the state of Connecticut or the island of Jamaica. Among the additions are seven new purpose-built venues, including the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted Sunday’s opening ceremony and game one.
Qatar became the first host nation to lose their opening game in 92 years of World Cup history.
Qatar are on the world stage for the first time because they are the host country, but they failed to stop Ecuadorian captain Enner Valencia, who scored both goals in the first half.
Two of the best players in the world were knocked out of the tournament with injuries before it even started.
France striker Karim Benzema, winner of the Ballon d’Or, is out after injuring his left thigh in training on Saturday. Senegalese striker Sadio Mane, second behind Benzema in the FIFA World Player of the Year poll, is out with a leg injury he sustained while playing for Bayern Munich last week.
Previously, France midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante were excluded, as was Germany striker Timo Werner. Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku and South Korean captain Son Heung-min arrived in Qatar with persistent injuries.
show me the money
Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was a financial boon for FIFA, as football’s governing body says it generated a record $7.5 billion in revenue over four years of commercial deals linked to this year’s tournament.
The money transport is $1 billion more than the revenue from the previous commercial cycle of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The extra money this year was supplemented by local sponsorship deals, including Qatar Energy, which joined as a premier sponsor. Qatari bank QNB and telecom company Ooredoo are also sponsors.
New to the sponsorship packages this year is crypto.com, the first new American sponsor in more than a decade.
The United States return to the World Cup after missing Russia 2018, opening Monday’s game against Gareth Bale-led Wales.
Bale has played for Los Angeles FC and helped them win the MLS Cup earlier this month.
The United States have one of the youngest rosters in the tournament with 32 teams. Three of the Americans – Gio Reyna, Joe Scally and Yusuf Musah – were just 11 years old when the national team last played at the World Cup.
DeAndre Yedlin, a 29-year-old defenseman, is the only remnant of the America team that was knocked out in the second round by Belgium eight years ago. Yedlin, Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta and Tim Ream are the only four players who were in the squad when they failed to qualify for Russia.
The first full day of competition also includes a Group B match between heavily favored England v Iran at Khalifa International Stadium and Netherlands v Senegal at Al Thumama Stadium in Group A.
England is one of the favorites and was a semi-finalist in Russia four years ago and European runners-up last year. But the Three Lions arrived in Qatar without a win in their last six games, hoping their strong track record in recent major tournaments will turn the team around.
Eight of the 13 team captains from European nations planned to wear One Love armbands to promote inclusivity and LGBTQ rights in Qatar, where same-sex relationships are banned.
Among those who signed for the armband was Bale and England striker Harry Kane.
But the FIFA Equipment Rules prohibit such armbands. The tournament rules stipulate that “match staff must wear official attire and equipment as provided by FIFA, including FIFA event badges as determined and provided by FIFA”.
If the wristbands are deemed inappropriate, players wearing them could be fined or given yellow cards.
The England squad have indicated they are prepared to pay a fine for wearing the armband, as has Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who replied “yes” when asked if he planned to continue the silent protest.
In response, FIFA, in partnership with the United Nations, launched its own captain’s armband, promoting a different campaign for each round of the tournament. The motto for the quarter-finals is “no discrimination”. There is no indication that LGBTQ rights will be part of any of the campaigns.