Infantino's Disaster Opening Day Highlights the Qatar World Cup's Shortcomings

What a debacle for FIFA. At the end of the opening match, Al Bayt Stadium was almost empty, with the Qatari fans having long since headed for home. It was a powerful symbol of a World Cup taking place under a cloud of suspicions.
By Peter Ahrens in Doha
Many Qatari fans left the game already at halftime, with their team struggling in its opening match against Ecuador.

Many Qatari fans left the game already at halftime, with their team struggling in its opening match against Ecuador.

Foto: Robert Michael / dpa

When you leave Doha, you inevitably cross into the desert. The sea of sand and stone, interrupted only by the five-lane highway, stretches out seemingly forever, the sun mercilessly beating down, both in summer and in winter. The dust permeates every crack, no matter how small.

It is the last place that one might imagine a World Cup football championship taking place.

And yet, Al Bayt Stadium suddenly appears out of nowhere – and in the middle of nowhere – seemingly growing up out of the rock. Or dropped there by some kind of FIFA UFO.

A Symbol of Senselessness

The architects designed the arena to evoke a Bedouin tent as a symbol of Qatari culture. But on Sunday evening, it became a symbol of all the absurdities of this World Cup.

As the game drew to a close, the Ecuadorian fans suddenly had plenty of room for their flag.

As the game drew to a close, the Ecuadorian fans suddenly had plenty of room for their flag.

Foto: Ronald Wittek / EPA

The empty stands when the final whistle blew, after a majority of the spectators had long since left this opening match between the host and Ecuador, are an initial symbol of the disaster that Qatar 2022 has become. No malice is necessary to make the observation that in the 90th minute, the stadium was, at most, one-third full – and that primarily thanks to the yellow-clad Ecuadorian fans, who were celebrating their relatively workmanlike 2:0 opening victory.

Most of the Qataris, by contrast, had already left, on their way to their cars or their limousine services hired to take them from this inhospitable place back to Doha, the country’s capital. And as if to highlight the already eminently visible fiasco of this opening match, the stadium announcer told those few spectators remaining as the game drew to a close that 67,000 people had attended – a clear contrast to the ocean of empty seats.

A Broken Dream

It is an image that FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, will likely not have enjoyed. Particularly since it stood in glaring contrast to Infantino’s vociferous enthusiasm before the event got underway. The Swiss national never tired of pledging the greatest World Cup of all time, but very little remains of that dream after opening day.

Gianni Infantino together with his Qatari hosts

Gianni Infantino together with his Qatari hosts

Foto: RAUL ARBOLEDA / AFP

Particularly since it is a rather dark omen for the rest of the tournament. If the locals already got tired of watching the football during the very first game, what will things look like following the (almost certain) group-stage exit of the extremely overmatched host team? Will the World Cup see half-empty stadiums during the knock-out phase because fewer people from around the world are interested in traveling to this World Cup than is normally the case? That wouldn’t be at all good for FIFA’s image.

Two hours earlier, the 67,000 seats in Al Bayt were still full when the World Cup began with the opening ceremony and its wondrous light show. It was a celebration that produced impressive images, just as Infantino had no doubt been hoping.

Nostalgia for Better Days

Part of the ceremony, though, included the presentation of all the mascots from World Cup history – from Willie in 1966 and Tip and Tap in 1974 to Mexico’s Juanito with his gigantic sombrero. It was enough to awaken in some spectators a certain nostalgia for a time when the world of soccer was so much different that it is today.

The mascots of previous World Cups recalled better times for world football.

The mascots of previous World Cups recalled better times for world football.

Foto: Natacha Pisarenko / AP

These days, global football is Infantino football. On Saturday, the FIFA president held a speech that fell somewhere between burlesque, temperamental and impudent, his final attempt to change the narrative about this tournament. It was a speech – including lines like: "Today I feel like a migrant worker" – that triggered facepalms the world over.

Applause for the Crown

In Al Bayt, he at least received a round of applause as he sat down next to Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and the Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is likely one of the few stadiums in the world where his name wouldn’t trigger a chorus of boos and whistles.

Others took care of the whistling on Sunday. Qatar has raised an army of police for the World Cup to both enforce order at the stadiums and to help people figure out where to go. The first part of that mission was fulfilled admirably on Sunday, with a concert of whistles filling the air, but otherwise, they didn’t have much to offer.

There were plenty of security personnel on hand on Sunday.

There were plenty of security personnel on hand on Sunday.

Foto: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS

Fans and journalists were rushing here and there on the search for shuttle buses and stadium entrances, but the security officials on hand preferred sending people to the next available police officer because they didn’t have a clear view of the situation either. Traffic had already become snarled earlier because the stadium can only be reached by road. Chaos was also the order of the day back at the FIFA fan festival in Doha, with volunteers quickly becoming overwhelmed by the number of fans. On the whole, the organization on opening day was hardly befitting of a World Cup.

That was even more true of the Qatar national team out on the pitch. It was probably a case of the pressure on the players’ shoulders simply weighing too heavy. But the team was unable to do pretty much anything, starting with the pitiable goalkeeper, who looked helpless on a number of occasions. When he was then even responsible for an Ecuadorian penalty kick, it is tempting to believe that FIFA President Infantino felt his pain most acutely.

Suspicions Are Everywhere

In the end, Qatar versus Ecuador was perhaps the perfectly emblematic opening match for this tournament. Ecuador, which shouldn’t have been allowed to participate at all after using a player with a fake passport during qualification. And Qatar, which had to face accusations ahead of the match of seeking to influence the referees.

When an Ecuadorian goal was disallowed three minutes into the action due to alleged offsides, many immediately thought of those suspicions. And that is the shadow that is hanging over this World Cup. After everything that has led up to it, the suspicions are everywhere.

Is it really affection for their leader that triggered half the stadium on Sunday to cheer for the emir? Are the fans in the fan block, who continued to make noise even after the seats to their right and left had already cleared out, real fans? Or is it all just a performance in exchange for money?

Perhaps it really was offsides. Maybe the Qataris really like their emir. It could be that the fans are crazy about their team. But doubts are everywhere. And both FIFA and Qatar share the blame for that.

Ecuador versus Qatar, cheered on by 67,000 fans in the stadium and watched by the whole world: It could have been such a wonderful image for the World Cup. When else is such a thing possible? And in a group that also includes the Netherlands from Europe and Senegal from Africa?

It could all have been so beautiful. FIFA never tires of claiming that football brings the world together. And it actually can in the best of times. The fact that this World Cup is demonstrating that football can also drive the world apart is entirely thanks to one man. Infantino.

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