Qatar World Cup opens with message of inclusivity amid backdrop of controversy

Qatar’s controversial World Cup kicked off on Sunday as football’s biggest event was staged in the Middle East for the first time.

The opening ceremony should have been a moment of pure celebration – the first truly global sports event to be staged without significant Covid-19 restrictions.

It was also Qatar’s big moment on the world stage – a country small in stature but whose influence is growing amid a global energy crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Almost 12 years have passed since a largely disgraced Fifa executive committee stunned the world by awarding Qatar these finals.

Around £200bn has reportedly been spent on readying the country for this moment. The human cost, according to rights groups, is incalculably higher.

For many this is a moment they hoped would never come. The plight of the migrant workers who helped build Qatar’s infrastructure has been highlighted frequently in the run-in to this tournament and has been too much for some to swallow.

And for all the opening ceremony was billed as a welcome to the world, in a stadium modelled on a nomad’s tent, it is a tent in which the LGBTQ+ community for one does not feel welcome.

Kick It Out’s Qatar working group says despite repeated requests, proper reassurances over safety have not been given and LGBTQ+ fans have largely stayed away from a country that criminalises same-sex relationships.

Other LGBTQ+ groups have indicated they are staying away to protect the community within Qatar, who Human Rights Watch says are targeted by the authorities – something the government strongly deny.

Right up to the opening day the finals have featured controversial moments.

This opening match was due to be played on November 21 but was moved only months ago to enable the hosts’ match against Ecuador to stand alone.

Even this week, questions have been raised over where the power lies at this tournament after Fifa sponsors Budweiser were barred from selling beer within the stadium perimeters.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who insists he is “200 per cent in control” of these finals, launched an extraordinary defence of Qatar on Saturday, accusing Europe of hypocrisy over its criticism of the Middle East state.

His view is that football’s soft power can accelerate change and that it has done in Qatar, an indication that it is entirely possible countries with similar human rights records to Qatar could host a World Cup in the future.

Human rights criteria can and will be applied, but they will only be a factor for FIFA’s 211 member associations to consider, with Saudi Arabia reportedly keen to co-host in 2030.

Qatar’s welcome to the world had an international flavour, featuring Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and K-pop star Jung Kook from BTS.

The country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, declared the tournament open.

The hope of Infantino and the local organisers is that once the first ball rolls, the political debate will quieten, if not stop entirely.

There is every possibility he will be right and the hope has to be that all the talk of inclusion in this ceremony is not simply telling the world what Qatar thinks it wants to hear, but the start of genuine change.