So, we finally have some football to talk about. Hosts Qatar faced Ecuador in the World Cup opener on Sunday night in front of 67,000 fans at Al Bayt stadium, 50km north of Doha. The venue, designed to look like a tent, sits in the middle of, well, nothing.
How many fans were still there for the second half is harder to say — many Qatar supporters decided to head for the exits early after a miserable start. On Sunday night’s form, Qatar fans will not get many more chances to see their team at a World Cup — this one, or any other. But perhaps the novelty has already worn off.
More troubling news came from outside the Fifa fan festival in central Doha, where tens of thousands of people tried to watch the game live on a big screen. Riot police were deployed after the swell of people led to chaotic scenes at the security perimeter.
On Monday, attention on the pitch shifts to some of the European teams’ opening fixtures. England, Wales and the Netherlands all play, and are set to wear their “One Love” rainbow armbands, defying last-minute calls from Fifa to instead wear its own armbands featuring slogans such as “Football Unites the World”. All three teams could be punished as a result.
One to watch: Early test of attacking threat for weary England
Gareth Southgate’s men begin their campaign against Iran at 4pm Doha time on Monday. The line-up is unlikely to yield many surprises — Southgate has shown himself to be fiercely loyal to his most trusted players, even those struggling for form in the domestic game.
Iran, led by Carlos Queiroz, the former Manchester United assistant and Real Madrid coach, will offer a well-organised defence, something increasingly rare in the international game. Instead, most teams have shifted towards a high-press approach, as is now common across European club football.
Much will depend on whether a typically cautious England team can break down the Iranian defensive wall without opening themselves up to a sucker punch. But Southgate has plenty of attacking talent at his disposal.
Read our full preview of the England team here.
Kuper’s column: Can van Gaal guide the Dutch to victory?
Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper will be writing regularly from Doha during the tournament. To start things off, he looks at Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal.
The Netherlands may be lacking top talent this year, he says, but with a world-class coach at the helm and such a rich football culture, nobody should write them off too soon.
Read Simon’s column here.
Monday’s fixture list:
England vs Iran, kick-off: 1pm UK time/4pm Qatar time
Senegal vs Netherlands, kick-off 4pm UK time/7pm Qatar time
Wales vs USA, kick-off 7pm UK time/10pm Doha time
Sunday highlight: Qatar’s football project runs into reality
Qatar 0 Ecuador 2
Qatar has been dreaming of the World Cup for 12 years (read more about the country’s football ambitions here). On Sunday night, the unlikely tournament hosts discovered the reality. An Ecuador side, led by captain and dominating centre forward Enner Valencia, gave Qatar a bruising lesson in World Cup football.
Valencia opened the scoring in the third minute, only to have the goal disallowed by a questionable VAR decision. The South Americans were awarded a penalty after less than 15 minutes, which Valencia coolly put away, before heading in Ecuador’s second with half an hour gone.
The second half kicked off with thousands, of empty seats, as Qatar fans decided to get on the road back to Doha. They did not miss much, a dire second half left the score unchanged.
Things will not get any easier for the hosts: they next face African champions Senegal.
The tournament began with the angry words of Fifa chief Gianni Infantino still ringing in journalists’ ears. He accused Qatar’s critics of hypocrisy, saying that the west was in no position to hand down “moral lessons”.
Fans travelling to matches will no longer be offered the chance to buy beer after Qatar’s last minute U-turn on alcohol policy. Budweiser beer tents will now be deployed only at designated fan sites around Doha.
Concerns are growing over the state of accommodation for those arriving in Qatar. The FT visited the Free Zone fan village on Thursday last week — to find much of it still a building site. The Guardian and the BBC found equally worrying situations at some of the other temporary fan camps. Organisers insist that all facilities are “100 per cent ready”.