The World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday as the month-long football showpiece finally got under way after a tortuous 12-year build-up dogged by off-field controversies.
Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thami was present in the impressive Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, 50 kilometres outside of Doha, to watch the host nation face Ecuador in the opening match.
In a breathless start to the match in the stadium shaped like a Bedouin tent, Ecuador’s Enner Valenica headed the ball into the net after three minutes but the goal was disallowed for offside.
Thirteen minutes later, Ecuador did take the lead after Valencia dribbled round Qatari goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb, who grabbed his shin and the referee pointed to the spot and Valencia coolly rolled home the penalty.
The Al Bayt venue is one of an array of new stadiums built for the tournament, which has cost Qatar an estimated $200 billion, the most expensive World Cup in history.
South Korean K-pop star Jung Kook headlined the 30-minute opening ceremony, attended by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. FIFA president Gianni Infantino sat next to the Saudi leader.
World Cup organisers hope the start of the football will quell the controversies that have overshadowed preparations for the tournament ever since Qatar was named as host nation in a shock FIFA vote in 2010.
Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and the Gulf state’s human rights record have dominated the pre-tournament headlines. But on Saturday, Infantino went on the offensive in an aggressive rebuttal of the opprobrium aimed at the event, arguing that much of the criticism was unfair.
“This moral lesson-giving—one-sided—is just hypocrisy,” Infantino said. “I don’t want to give you any lessons of life, but what is going on here is profoundly, profoundly unjust.”
Controversies look certain to rumble on into the tournament even after the action starts. Several European nations—including England, Germany and Denmark—have said their players will wear rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armbands in a gesture of solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
The move raises the prospect of disciplinary action from FIFA – the world governing body of the game – which has revealed plans to make its own alternative armbands available to teams.
Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. Infantino insisted that all World Cup visitors would be welcome regardless of sexual orientation. “They [hosts] can confirm that I can confirm that everyone is welcome.”
The teams arrival is complete with five-time champions Brazil were the last to touch down in Doha late on Saturday. Also in a first in the tournament, France withdrew star striker and Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema due to injury.
Defending champions France are already battling the absence of star midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. On Saturday the Real Madrid star limped out of a training session with a left thigh injury.
The French federation later confirmed in a statement that the 34-year-old would require “a recovery period of three weeks” and would play no part in the competition.
Belgium are also reeling from an injury blow after striker Romelu Lukaku was ruled out of the Red Devils’ opening two games as he continues to recover from a hamstring problem.
Easy win for Ecuador
Later, Ecuador eased past World Cup Qatar 2-0 with both goals coming from veteran striker Valencia, as the debutants looked overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion.
Ecuador's all-time top scorer, nicknamed "Superman" at home, scored an early penalty and added a well-taken 31st-minute header to give the South Americans a commanding first-half lead.
It could have been even worse for the hosts in front of a 67,372 crowd at Al Bayt had Valencia, 33, not had a third minute header disallowed for a marginal offside after Alsheeb had flapped at the ball.
It was Alsheeb who later tripped Valencia when he was through on goal and then dived the wrong way as the Ecuadorean coolly dispatched the resulting penalty in the 16th minute.
For his second, Valencia was unmarked but still showed great technique to stoop and take Angelo Preciado's cross almost from behind him to head past Alsheeb again.
That goal killed the Group A game as a contest and the second half was played at a slow pace, with many Qataris leaving before the end as Ecuador's fans chanted "Ole!"
Both sides now have to play Senegal and the Netherlands in the group stage, with Qatar's chances of picking up points or qualifying looking slim on this performance.