The World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Sunday in a high-stakes event for the Muslim nation which has faced a barrage of criticism including over human rights as it stakes its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament.
In a show of Arab solidarity, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and the presidents of Egypt and Algeria will be among political leaders at the opening ceremony in a tent-shaped stadium at 5:40 p.m. (1440 GMT), before the first match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador. The U.N. Secretary-General will also be there.
The tournament, the first held in the Middle East and most expensive in its history, marks a culmination of Qatar’s soft power push, after emerging from a 3-1/2 year boycott by Saudi Arabia and three Arab allies, including Egypt, that ended in 2021.
For the first time, a direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Doha landed in Qatar on Sunday despite the absence of formal bilateral ties, in a deal brokered by FIFA to carry both Palestinians and Israelis to the tournament.
At Al Bayt Stadium in dusty weather with temperatures at some 30 degrees Celsius, people began filing inside, including Qatari supporters in crisp white thobes and women in black abayas. A troupe performed a sword dance.
Onstage, singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new tournament song, alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi.
The Gulf state’s Deputy Prime Minister Khalid Al-Attiyah, in remarks on state media, said Qatar was reaping benefits of years of “hard work and sound planning”.
Qatar – which has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination – and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to action on the pitch after criticism over foreign workers’ rights, LGBT rights and social restrictions. Organisers have also denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.
On Saturday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino rounded on European critics of Qatar, saying engagement was the only way to improve rights, while Doha has also pointed to labour reforms.
Denmark’s and Germany’s team captains will wear One Love armbands as they prepare to compete in a conservative Muslim state where same-sex relations are illegal. Organisers say all are welcome while warning against public affection.
Throngs of fans were already arriving in Qatar but the main rush will be later this week.
Daniel Oordt from Holland, clad in orange, told Reuters there was a a feeling of “constant pressure around you not to say the wrong thing or make the wrong move”. “It’s not a fun atmosphere to have at a World Cup.”
Argentina fan Julio Cesar though said he expected a great atmosphere. “We’ll drink before the match,” he added, after alcohol sales at stadiums were banned.
Visitors sipped beer at the FIFA Fan Festival in central Doha. Outside the city’s edges, hundreds of workers gathered in a sports arena in an industrial zone, without alcohol. They can watch matches there, priced out of the stadiums many toiled to build along with other infrastructure for the event.
“Of course I didn’t buy a ticket. They’re expensive and I should use that money for other things – like sending it back home to my family,” Ghanaian national Kasim, a security guard who has worked in Qatar for four years, told Reuters.
Gas exporter Qatar is the smallest nation to host soccer’s biggest global event. Crowd control will be key with some 1.2 million visitors expected – more than a third of its population.
Workers were putting final touches to Doha’s landscape, including draping a purple tarpaulin over an unfinished building near the stadium where the final will be held.
At Lagoona Mall, residents were going about their business.
“I came now because I don’t know how bad the traffic will be later this week,” said Egyptian woman Esraa, grocery shopping.