Qatar waited 12 years for the World Cup, but the first day did not go according to plan

Fans being a little slow to return from their halftime libations is nothing new, and with Al Bayt Stadium’s brand new refrigerators stocked with Bud Zero, who can blame them?

But as the clock ticked towards the hour, it became clear that well over 10,000 Qatari fans in the crowd of 67,372 – the stadium’s capacity is stated by the organizers as 60,000 – were AWOL.

When this migration was pointed out on Twitter, some culturally sensitive souls, perhaps inspired by the opening ceremony, suggested that they might be praying. After all, the last call to prayer of the day had taken place during the opening ceremony of the tournament, so perhaps the fans were making up for their loss.

Satisfying, The athletic sat next to three journalist friends from the host country, one of whom had already mentioned that he had studied in Sunderland. He didn’t say what he was studying and it didn’t seem fair to ask.

“Excuse me. People on Twitter are wondering if maybe the fans who aren’t there are praying. Is that right?” We asked.

“To cry?”

“No, pray.”

“Oh no. They just left. I also left early when Sunderland went down.”

So there you have it. Despite everything that separates us, we are truly united through football.

There were thousands of empty seats long before the opening game of the World Cup ended (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Right, what else have we learned from today’s opening game of this highly anticipated World Cup?

Well, in chronological order, we can say that Al Khor, the city where this game was played, is not Watford.

It had been suggested that all eight stadiums in use here were in fact part of the greater conurbation of Doha, just as the aforementioned city of Hertfordshire is linked to London. This equation only works if we think of Elstree, Bushey, and Stanmore as deserts. That has also been suggested before, but it is not true.

The Al Bayt Stadium, which looks like a giant Bedouin tent, is also the only World Cup venue not on the Doha Metro system. Then it might be an idea to move the tent a little closer, because the traffic outside was really world class.

Before the first game, there were long queues outside the stadium (Photo: Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Of course, that could explain why so many Qatar fans dropped out early. Presumably they were the ones who couldn’t reserve a seat at the stadium’s helipad. Still guys – and it was mostly guys – you’ve been waiting 12 years for this, it’s cost at least $200bn (£168bn), countless lives and it’s only 2-0 with half an hour to go.

But we’ll all come back to that.

There was a nice buzz about the place before the game. The yellow shirts of the Ecuador fans provided a nice splash of color and the hundreds of volunteers did their best to point people in the right direction, which was especially helpful since no one had any idea where they were going.

Ecuador fans celebrated a 2-0 win against Qatar (Image: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

The opening ceremony was… why am I telling you what an opening ceremony was like? You’ve seen them all. If you’re trying to complete the 92 sports-adjacent mascot-and-music mash-ups, our Nick Miller has all the details.

The only thing perhaps worth noting is that the show’s co-star was venerable Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman.

He was last seen in a football-related setting speaking his mind in the final presentation of the US bid before the vote to decide who would host this World Cup in December 2010. He must have impressed someone then.

Watching all this singing, dancing and appealing to humanity’s nobler instincts, an all-star cast of VVIPs sat in the posh seats.

The first to take his place was “Father Emir” Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who ruled Qatar between 1995 and 2013, when he passed the reins to his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.

Sheikh Hamad is perhaps best known outside of Qatar for his celebrations when Sepp Blatter took the map of Qatar out of its envelope that day in Zurich nearly 12 years ago. He didn’t have much to cheer about here, though.

Next to him, to his right, was King Abdullah II of Jordan, and then there were two empty seats to his left, before we got to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Not just football royalties.

Those two seats were filled at exactly 5:40 p.m., 20 minutes before kick-off, when the chieftain, Emperor Gianni Infantino, arrived along with Sheikh Tamim.

The latter duly kissed his father’s hand and Infantino took his place between the current rulers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t that long ago that the man better known as MBS tried to wreak havoc on Qatar’s economy, forcing FIFA to give Saudi some 2022 World Cup love and filling the channel that separates these two neighbors with toxic waste.

Water under the bridge now, it seems.

Gianni Infantino mingled with royalty as he also addressed the crowd at the stadium with a pre-kickoff speech (Photo: Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images)

MBS also sat next to Infantino during the opening game of the previous World Cup. A glutton for punishment.

He then saw his team being defeated 5-0 by Russia. He probably (secretly) enjoyed today’s game a bit more.

After the dancers and Korean pop stars were taken off the field (and hopefully gone a long way), Sheikh Tamim gave a speech in Arabic before ending with a warm smile and the English words “welcome and good luck to all” .

Infantino, FIFA’s human C-3PO, pretty much said the same thing in Arabic, Spanish and English back then, before we all – including David Beckham – settled in for the football!

David Beckham is an ambassador for the World Cup in Qatar (Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Oh, but did anyone tell the hosts team? Or the guys in the semi-automatic offside technology closet?

Because within minutes of the start, goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb was waving at a cross (it would become as much a theme of the evening as the suspiciously choreographed chanting of the Doha All-Male Choir in the singing area behind his goal) and former West Ham and Everton striker Enner Valencia nodded the ball in at the back post. Cue South American parties.

But when the players returned to their positions and Qatar were about to kick off again, VAR ruled out the goal for offside.

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Speaking to reporters on Friday, FIFA supremo Pierluigi Collina had assured us that the latest version of VAR would be faster, more accurate and easier to explain to the watching public. That will be no; Yes maybe; and, um, then I’m still not sure I get it.

Whatever. Ecuador was all over Qatar, who spent the past six months together in the camp, training as a club. Looks like a League Two club.

Valencia would get his goal on 16 minutes as he got around Al Sheeb but was felled by a textbook tick tackle. This decision would not be reversed and the 33-year-old, now with Fenerbahce in Turkey, picked himself up and put away his penalty. Watching Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have enjoyed that.

Ecuador’s night took a turn for the better after 31 minutes, as Qatar’s fearsome defenders gave another swipe – right-back Angelo Preciado put the ball in the mixer and Valencia’s forehead did the rest.

That was, in football terms, pretty much that.

Ecuador missed a few decent chances, without really getting out of third gear.

Qatar, the 2019 Asian champion, woke up a bit. But they still failed to shoot on target. And the stadium was half empty — sorry, let’s be positive, half full — with 10 minutes to play.

It doesn’t matter, only African champions Senegal and the Netherlands, eighth in the world ranking, enter Group A.

And in any case everyone will now focus on how poor the Qatar team is, how plastic their fans are and when MBS will see their national team host one of these World Cup openers, instead of focusing on all those negative things.

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(Top photo: David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images))

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