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FIFA World Cup Day 1: Hosts Qatar lose on field, win hearts outside

Ecuador win the opening game 2-0 against listless hosts but away from the stadium crowds exhibit passion and fervour

FIFA World CupEcuador celebrates their opening goal by Enner Valencia during the World Cup, group A soccer match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. (AP Photo)

THE REAL moment when it sunk in that the World Cup was upon the world was not when the fireworks wobbled into the smoky skies like flying snakes, or when Morgan Freeman spoke, or when Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani addressed the crowd, a sentence in English and rest in Arabic, or when BTS star Jung Kook belted out his single “Dreamers”.

It came when the ball boys threw the first few balls onto the shiny turf after what was a minimalist opening ceremony, grand but not gaudy. So shiny was the surface that it resembled an animation turf brushed in a Disney studio. And when the hosts in maroon training kits jogged in, the Al Bayt Stadium shook and swayed in delirium. The World Cup that was haunted, harassed and harried by off-field themes, finally acquired a World Cup feel.

The 60,000-stadium that resembles a bloated Bedouin tent was filled to the full, making one wonder whether the spectators had sprung from the earth like some magic gnomes. There were those that had wondered whether the Qataris would turn up en masse; those that had assumed they would be detached. On Sunday, for their team’s opening match against Ecuador to kick off the tournament, they not only made the numbers but made their presence felt in a rousing exhibition of passion and fervour. So much so, the rendition of the national anthem, “Al-Salam-Al-Amiri”, in the stands drowned out the recorded version.

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Then, abruptly, a shiver silenced the stadium when Ecuador ruffled the nets as early as the third minute. Even the Ecuadorian fans were shocked, before they had even gathered their voices.

However, the video review adjudged that the goal was off-side, by the slimmest of margins. The stadium rediscovered its joy and bounce. Only that it lived for just 12 more minutes, when Ecuador was awarded a clear penalty. The ensuing moments were dull and laborious, but Qataris supporters found their voice again, and began to sing “Shoomila, Shoomila” — a song written by Ayed bin Ghayda and composed by Abdullah Al Manai. The song was most popular when Qatar was boycotted by their neighbours in 2017.

The angst got deeper as Enner Valencia netted Ecuador’s second goal in the 31st minute. But for all the pain the host nation endured on the turf, Qatar was surreally calm, almost unflustered, outside — even though the usually uncrowded metro stations and bus stops were packed to the rafters, the queues so long that they spilled into the streets.

Everything was precise. There were no long traffic snarls or choking or fans stranded for lack of transportation. The paramilitary forces sourced from Pakistan and Turkey were on the alert. Navy frigates patrolled the coastline and an army of 2,00,000 police and soldiers had been mobilised.

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Qatar had promised it would put on a show, and it delivered – at least on the opening day.

But then, long before Al Bayt Stadium soaked in the unwavering glare of the world, the World Cup had begun in the heads and hearts of the multitudes that gushed onto the streets. Seven hours before kick-off, Ecuadorian fans had begun to load up in metro trains and buses, draped in La Tricolour, miniatures painted on faces too, to the stadium, the farthest from the city centre.

With an infectious verve, they began to whip up a passionate rendition of “Salve, Oh Patria (Hail, Oh Fatherland)”, the national anthem penned by one of their greatest poets, Juan Leon Mera, in the background of the liberation fight in the 1880s. As the tradition goes, the eldest would have to recite the first lines and the youngest would have to end it.

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Here in Doha, the eldest was Roberto Olmedo, a 53-year-old physical education teacher from Quito, who is watching his fourth World Cup. He is the head of a group of 100 from the capital city. It took his group four days, including multiple transits, to cover the nearly 14,000 km across Africa and Europe into the heart of the Middle East. “We knew the journey would be hectic, but our national team had taken lots of pain to reach the World Cup,” he said, breaking into an ever-ready chuckle.

Nearly 5,000 Ecuadorians have landed in Doha to support the national team, which is featuring in their fourth World Cup. Most of them have one name emblazoned on the back of their pleasant, yellow jerseys: 23 Caicedo, their talisman and with whom their hopes of progressing from the group hinge. “We call him El Nino Moi, which is a little boy ‘Moi (of Moises)’. He is our little boy with big hopes,” he says.

As they entered the train, they draped the steel bars inside it with the flags and spread one on the front window as well. The national anthem gave away to the football anthem, “Yo to Dare”, composed by hardline supporters of Liga Deportiva Universitaria, the country’s most successful club.

It was not just the Ecuadorians. The opening day was also being celebrated by a few Argentines and Mexicans, transporting the Middle Eastern city into a Latin American “bulevar” (boulevard) or “camino” (path). Many of them didn’t have tickets for the first game, and headed to the fans park.

The plusher city centre had a more European vibe: packed cafes and the scent of frappe; bodies sprawled on the grass banks under the crisp afternoon sun; banter in the refined Castilian twang of Madrid; an Englishman engrossed in the Michael Connelly bestseller “Desert Star”.

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Then there was the corniche, a stretch of street that has become a kaleidoscope of colourful flags and football kits over the past few weeks. On Sunday, a few wearing France’s jerseys were loitering in the pavement, weighing in on the injury-enforced absence of Karim Benzema.

All in all, it was clear that the fans had put their fears and doubts aside and plunged headlong into the intoxicating spectacle (though without the intoxicants) that is a World Cup. It was an unforgettable day — with a forgettable ending for the hosts.

First published on: 20-11-2022 at 23:47 IST
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