Of all the stadia that Qatar constructed for the 2022 World Cup, none gets the pulse racing like the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt, which is shaped like a monstrous Bedouin tent, complete with interior canopy decorated in traditional red and black sadu weave. It’s a marvel of engineering worthy of the grandest stage, though had to make do with dashed hopes on Sunday, when Qatar was utterly outplayed by Ecuador in a 2-0 loss, becoming the first host country in the competition’s 92-year history to lose its opening game.
Ecuador dominated play from the outset and thought they’d scored in just the second minute, but Enner Valencia’s powerful header was ruled out by the video referee. But the striker had his chance at revenge just 12 minutes later when, after jinxing past Qatar’s goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb, he was brought down by his outstretched arm. Valencia calmly dispatched the resulting penalty low to Alsheeb’s left. Then, on the half-hour mark, Valencia rose to meet a curling cross from the right to nod in his second of the night and extinguish all hope for the hosts.
On paper, it never looked like a stellar encounter. Of all the teams that qualified for the World Cup (host nations are guaranteed a spot), only Saudi Arabia and Ghana sit lower than Qatar’s FIFA rankings of 50. Ecuador ranks just above them in 44th spot and hadn’t conceded in six games before this match. The hosts’ best chance came on the stroke of half-time when striker Almoez Ali nodded a header just wide from Hassan Alhaydos’s cross from the right. In the dying moments of the match, substitute Mohammed Muntari hit a stinging volley just over the bar. But in truth, Qatar were outplayed throughout.
It’s a tremendous disappointment for the hosts. Since Qatar won in 2010 the bid to host the tournament, Al Annabi, as the national team is known, have been laser-focused on this moment. The Qatar Stars League was suspended in mid-September to give the national team a prolonged intensive training camp. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, Qatar’s Spanish coach Félix Sánchez had the benefit of friendlies against sides like Canada, Nicaragua, Chile, and Guatemala.
Farther back, Qatar has played 10 European friendlies, won the Asian Cup in 2019 for the first time, performed well at South America’s 2019 Copa América, and reached the semi-finals of the 2021 Gold Cup, a biennial competition for North and Central America plus the Caribbean. (Yes, Qatar was bizarrely invited to both.) It was a remarkable run for the tiny Gulf nation, which has resolutely funneled its petro-billions into forging a national identity via sport through global expertise and world-class infrastructure.
Sunday’s result indulged headline writers’ hope that Ecuador prove a banana peel for Qatar, given the South American nation is the world’s biggest exporter of the fruit. Certainly, La Tricolor were no pushovers during qualification, displacing World Cup regulars Colombia and Peru in controversial circumstances, after it was discovered that Ecuador had once fielded an ineligible player. Rather than disqualify Ecuador, as rivals demanded, FIFA opted to penalize three points from its next 2026 qualifying campaign. Ecuador arrived in Qatar with the youngest squad of all South American participants and some key players missing through injury.
In the lead up to the tournament, the focus was on Qatar’s tactic of naturalizing players with tenuous, if any, links to the oil-rich state. In 2004, three Brazilians played for the Qatar national team despite having no clear link to the country, prompting FIFA to toughen its rules on the issue. More recently, Qatar has fielded players born in places as far-flung as Sudan, Ghana, and Cape Verde. Many countries, particularly in the West, have a large number of players who are immigrants or their descendants. But what makes Qatar’s squad stand out is that the country has some of the strictest naturalization laws in the world. Still, 16 of the current 26-strong World Cup squad were born in Qatar and several others were raised in the country from a young age.
Nevertheless, much of the team’s success in recent years goes to Qatar’s Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art sporting institution founded in 2004 that sits perched on the western edge of Doha. Funded by the state’s seemingly bottomless pockets, it boasts eight full-size soccer pitches, including one in the Aspire Dome, a vast indoor training complex.
Graduates include Qatar’s star player Akram Afif, 26, who was born in Doha to a Tanzanian father and Yemeni mother and on Sunday showed little of the talent that won him the 2019 Asian Footballer of the year. In the second half, Afif dropped deeper into midfield in an effort to gain the ball and conjure an opening, though his best chance was a speculative strike at 74 mins that soared high over Hernán Galíndez’s goal.
Yet if Qatar has addressed the naturalization controversy, the same cannot be true for myriad other issues. The migrant workers who perished building the necessary infrastructure for the tournament—Al Bayt plus seven other stadiums, connecting rail and highways, hotels, as well as an expansion of the airport—under harsh conditions are not the only ones who missed Jung Kook, of K-Pop megagroup BTS, strut his stuff under dazzling fireworks during the opening ceremony. (Qatar insists that labor reforms are significant and ongoing.) Also absent are the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ sports fans, who decided en mass to boycott a tournament hosted by a country where homosexuality is illegal. “Qatar society is not an inclusive space,” says Josie Nixon of the You Can Play Project, which advocates for LGBTQ+ representation in sport. “It’s absolutely egregious [to hold the World Cup there].”
The estimated $250 billion cost of hosting the tournament—more than Qatar’s national GDP, or, if you prefer, the combined cost of every previous World Cup and Olympics Games—makes a mockery of earnest pledges of sustainability. (By comparison, the Germany 2006 World Cup cost just $5 billion.) Despite promising the first “carbon neutral World Cup in history,” a June 2021 report by FIFA predicted 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide will be produced during the tournament. That’s almost the annual output of Iceland and 1.5 million tons more than Russia 2018. Meanwhile, the lack of adequate hospitality arrangements or activities for fans—least of all socializing over a beer, which is expensive and heavily proscribed—raises uncomfortable questions regarding the priorities of those who awarded Qatar the tournament in 2010.
Qatar has strenuously denied corrupt practices to secure their bid and a probe by FIFA’s Ethics Committee uncovered no wrongdoing. Yet the fact remains that 16 of the 22 FIFA Executive Committee members responsible for voting have since been accused, investigated, or convicted of alleged corruption or malfeasance, and similar allegations have dogged at least the previous four tournaments. Sanctioned officials include then FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has since called Qatar a “bad choice” and “mistake,” blaming the decision on his longtime rival Michel Platini, then head of European soccer governing body UEFA. (In 2015, both men were banned from soccer until 2023 for ethics violations amid an investigation into suspicious payments.)
Of course, FIFA’s stated desire to bring the World Cup—which for decades alternated between Europe and South America—to new pastures is, on face value, laudable. The 2002 Japan/South Korea and 2010 South Africa iterations were heralded as great successes (crumbling, now-unused “white elephant” stadia in the latter notwithstanding). But while the soccer-mad Arabsphere is no doubt deserving of a World Cup, Qatar remains a bizarre choice for the region. (Tellingly, the Al Bayt was more than half-empty long before the final whistle.) Morocco, for one, has a rich, proud soccer tradition, an abundance of diverse tourist attractions, and has bid (unsuccessfully) five times to host the tournament.
Qatar is the size of Connecticut with a population of just 2.9 million, of whom just 300,000 are citizens. An abundance of migrant laborers skews the overall gender balance to around 80% male. While open compared to some neighbors, it is by no means a liberal society. On Tuesday, a Danish camera crew were accosted by Qatari officials who threatened to smash their equipment. (An apology was subsequently issued.)
Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps unsurprising that fans appear to have been placed at the very bottom of the list of priorities, sequestered into a single inhospitable fan-zone, sleeping in spartan desert tents, or, for the lucky few, on cramped cruise ships. Many are choosing to stay in the comparatively comfortable U.A.E., taking special buses from Abu Dhabi and Dubai across the slither of Saudi Arabia that separates it from Qatar. On Friday, it emerged that alcohol had suddenly been banned from stadia, prompting Budweiser—which pays around $75 million to be associated with each World Cup—to post an understated (and now deleted) “Well, this is awkward” on Twitter in response. “I’m not surprised it happened, but the timing is a shock,” one FIFA official told TIME, asking to remain anonymous as he wasn’t authorized to speak to media. As half-time approached, the Ecuador fans erupted into a chorus of “we want beer.”
Organizers hoped that these concerns would fade into the background once the first ball was kicked. Sunday’s result does little to achieve that. While allegations of “sportswashing” have undoubted merit, they are unsurprising in a historical context. Politicians have always sought prestige and profile through soccer. The very first World Cup held in Uruguay in 1930 was bankrolled by the state largely to gild its national centenary celebrations. The victory of Benito Mussolini’s Italy as hosts of the subsequent 1934 tournament was leveraged as a vindication of the fascist project. Argentina hosted (and won) the 1978 World Cup just two years after a brutal military coup; Russia just four years after Vladmir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014.
But while Qatar is hardly an aberration, it does represent a significant shift, a waning of European influence over soccer as the broader power nexus widens from the Global North to the South. That the tournament was moved from its usual summer timetable to the middle of Europe’s domestic league timetable—much to the ire of the continent’s richest and most powerful clubs—to avoid the Gulf’s blistering summer heat is a case in point. And Qatar may simply shrug off allegations of corruption as well as migrant and human rights abuses related to the World Cup because it may not see these issues as quite the priority. That comes as the growing economic clout of China and oil- and gas-rich autocracies like Qatar continues to gnaw away at Western presumptions about the superiority of liberal democracy.
Having made Beijing the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made plain his ambition to host the World Cup in 2030 or 2034. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is preparing a rival joint bid with Egypt and Greece that would reportedly involve it paying for all the associated infrastructure in the partner countries. It’s part of Saudi Arabia “positioning itself as the center of an Afro-Eurasian conception of the world,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the Skema Business School in Paris. “This is not just about kicking a ball. It’s obviously something much bigger and, I would argue, seismic economically, politically, and ideologically.”
It’s unclear how a tournament spread across three continents would benefit fans. But with the prospect of one on the horizon, the thousands of fans exiting Al Bayt on Sunday—queuing for shuttle buses or sweating on the 40-minute (sober) trudge to the nearest metro stop—may one day think that they, in fact, were some of the lucky ones.