Qatar waits for the ball to get rolling

One residential complex of squat three-storey buildings near Al Janoub Stadium coming to life over the past two days cannot be the most definitive statement of the world converging for football on a tiny west Asian peninsula famous for falconry. But increasing frequency of vehicles swooshing through the streets of a place that has 10,000 rooms, the chatter of wheels on cobbled pathways as people drag bags into lodgings, footfalls in its supermarkets and shuttles, often full, to and from the Al Wakrah metro station and airports do convey a sense of the World Cup starting here on Sunday.

Thirty-two teams, an expected visitors’ count of 1.2 million, eight stadiums where the maximum distance between two venues is 55km holding 64 games in 29 days–instead of the usual 32 over five weekends–make this a never-before kind of World Cup. As do the conversation of compensation for migrant workers who died transforming Doha into a theatre of dreams–the numbers swirl between three and thousands depending on whom you speak to–discrimination of people based on sexual preferences, and since Friday, the prospect of a largely dry World Cup.

Also Read | FIFA chief Infantino slams Qatar critics as “hypocrites” and “racists

Well, a lot of top football countries do that at their stadiums too, said FIFA president Gianni Infantino, referring to the absence of beer sales. His monologue on introspection and inclusion notwithstanding, this is a never-before World Cup in terms of protests as well.

They will be made by Denmark’s men in black, their shirts’ makers name deliberately faded as a mark of respect for migrant workers who died in the 12 years this was in the making. And they will be made by teams wearing armbands against discrimination. “When we are on the world stage and we are in a venue like Qatar, it’s important to already bring awareness to these issues,” USA coach Gregg Berhalter has said. Iran coach Carlos Quieroz has permitted players to show solidarity with the public outcry against moral policing back home so long as they don’t breach tournament rules. Add to these the usual political overtones that shroud an Iran-USA match given the relations between the countries.

But from Aaron Ramsdale to Infantino, they agreed that once it begins attention will be on football. It will be mega, said Ramsdale on Friday. “As soon as the ball rolls, people will engage in that,” said Infantino one day later.

Teams barely having a week together before that also makes this a different World Cup, said Juergen Klinsmann, who is part of the FIFA Technical Study Group. “It will be demanding given that they are straight out of the regular season but that also means they don’t need another four weeks of preparation,” said Klinsmann, the 1990 World Cup winner with West Germany and former USA and Germany coach. Klinsmann also said he hoped No 9s would get some goals, adding that the idea of False Nine and he don’t get along well.

Yes, a number of players will be missing due to injuries–Sadio Mane was the latest in a long list that has Giovani Lo Celso, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Reese James and Ben Chilwell. Yes, it will be demanding, said Klinsmann, after three games a week for their clubs in the lead-up and then a game every three days but that will be true for all teams.

Arsene Wenger, who heads the TSG and is head of Global Development at FIFA, said the gap between countries have narrowed, and at another point Klinsmann said this “could be a World Cup of surprises.”

So along with protests, this could also be a World Cup of hope. For Canada, back in the mix after 1986, hosts Qatar, who are Asian champions but have never qualified for a finals, for England to improve on their 2018 show, for Portugal to hope that Cristiano Ronaldo can forget his bleak time at Manchester in the sun and sand of Doha, for women referees showing that sex neutral supervision of games is an idea whose time has come, for Asian teams to do what they did when the competition last came to the continent and for Africa.

“If they are courageous and hungry, teams from Asia and Africa can go far,” said Klinsmann.

Many had thought Africa’s breakthrough moment had arrived in 1990 when Cameroon beat defending champions Argentina but no African team has yet made the semi-finals. Between 2018 finals and this, the Confederation of African Football was in such a mess that it had to be run by FIFA. “The wish of all Africans is that the performance like that of 1990 become normal. Rather than being a feat without a future,” Jules Onana, a member of the 1990 Cameroon team, has said.

Lionel Messi has kept Argentina out of the list of his favourites, preferring to name Brazil, France and England as a “little bit above the rest” but his team is on a 35-game unbeaten run. Belgium, Spain, Germany and even defending champions France could have something to say about Messi not mentioning them.

Starting with Qatar against Ecuador, a country little bigger than Tripura will provide all the answers over the next few weeks. “Doha is ready. Qatar is ready. It will be an incredible World Cup,” said Infantino.

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