Football – for the first time in the history of football – has put a mid-winter pause to its lucrative club/league schedules to squeeze in the quadrennial World Cup. The 29-day showcase, to be held in Arabia, is going ahead in Qatar despite protestations from behemoth European clubs and leagues, which for long – with their cash – had dictated the fortunes and calendar of global football.
The world governing body FIFA’s 2010 ruling to award the 2022 tournament to the tiny peninsula and the resolve to back its decision undeterred by a decade of rising universal disapproval show the Arabian Gulf’s growing influence in football. Qatar Sports Investment, chaired by Naseer Al-Khelaifi, recently acquired 22 per cent stake in Portuguese club SC Braga and has owned Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain since 2011. Al-Khelaifi is also the chairman and CEO of the beIN Media that holds broadcast rights for the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, Premier League, and Ligue 1. The Saudi Arabian sovereign fund, too, has dabbled in football with its acquisition of Newcastle United, while the Abu Dhabi-backed City Football Group owns 11 clubs worldwide – including Manchester City and Mumbai City FC.
Qatar fan enjoys the atmosphere prior to the Fan Festival Official Opening ahead of the FIFA World Cup.
| Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES
But with the World Cup about to kickstart with the opening match on November 20 at the Al Bayt Stadium between the host and Ecuador, which received a CAS (Court of Arbitration in Sports) reprieve to play the tournament despite fielding an ineligible player during the qualifiers, there’s still uncertainty over Qatar’s ability to withstand the pressure of having myriad visitors from across the globe, who are likely to dwarf the local population (many of them immigrants) by at least two-and-a-half times to one.
However, the eight stadiums, located within a 55-km radius, offer the fans, many of whom are expected to fly in and fly out from adjoining cities in the UAE, the opportunity to watch multiple games in a day.
Making its World Cup debut, Qatar, which has won its last four friendlies, will look to make a winning start in a contest between the 50th and 44 th ranked nations in the world before facing the big boys of Group A, the Netherlands and Senegal.
Coach Felix Sanchez, in charge since 2017, is aware of the task in hand and is relying on the playing chemistry of the Al Saad gang – 13 of his 26 players come from the Qatar Super League champion – to earn the football world’s respect and offer early legitimacy to the nation’s dream project.
Qatar players in training on the eve of the FIFA World Cup. The host nation will take on Ecuador.
| Photo Credit: REUTERS
“It’s an extraordinary day like no other. We have made such a huge effort in this country. We are all devoted for this World Cup and have invested so much. I hope it’s a great party where we can enjoy football and I hope everyone from all countries in the world, together, can enjoy this experience. I’m happy to be the ones kicking off this competition,” he said ahead of the historical game. “We are very much aware of who we are, where we are coming from and who we are facing. We know it will be a great challenge but, in many ways, we are eager to play and are very happy to be here.”
Ecuador, with Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo and the experienced Enner Valencia in it ranks, is short of goals coming into the World Cup, but is tough to break down, conceding none in its last six games since June.
Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro had criticised FIFA’s move to prepone the game by a day to fit in a grand opening ceremony, but on Sunday both teams will be happy to kick-off the World Cup.
They’ll hope the game and its stars will do enough to banish the controversies that has bogged down both nations.
Ecuador’s Latin American neighbours – Brazil and Argentina – arrive in Doha with plenty of firepower and a settled squad, triggering dreams of a Cup triumph that have eluded the rivals for long.
Lionel Messi, whose mere presence has improved every club team he has played for, has inexplicably failed to exert the same influence in the La Albiceleste shirt. But with a national team title – the 2021 Copa America – finally crammed in his overspilling trophy cabinet, Argentina and its many fans are bravely bracing to see the competition swept aside by a surreal final hurrah from the 35-year-old star.
And for Cristiano Ronaldo – the relentless Djoker to Messi’s Federeresque class – the World Cup offers the paradisiac platform to volley – not verbal – away the perceived ill treatments suffered in the other Manchester club. His teammates for Portugal, quite a few from United and its city rival, will be as eager to fuel the rage of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner to raise an elusive crown.
Lionel Messi is set to appear in his fifth World Cup.
| Photo Credit: REUTERS
There are other contenders, too, in Neymar’s Brazil, Luka Modric’s Croatia and of course defending champion France with its realigned forward line of Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe.
This World Cup in winter – clubs will be paid GBP 8500 a day by FIFA for releasing players for the midseason madness –has all the ingredients to be another bestseller and Qatar – with its bet spread wide; state-owned QSI employs Messi, Mbappe and Neymar in PSG and players from multiple other World Cup-playing nations – hopes to be the ultimate winner in this game of geopolitical power.