As the Qatar players lingered in the tunnel of the vast Al Bayt stadium, steeling themselves to walk out for the second half of this hyper-strange sporting super‑show, two or three of them could be seen wincing a little, rubbing their eyes, looking, it has to be said, a little overwhelmed by the moment.
Unsurprisingly so. The moment was overwhelming. Not to mention unreal, fabricated, thin, frazzled and fringed with ghosts and waste. Welcome to the opening night of Qatar 2022, an occasion that felt, as it passed in a glaze of colour and borrowed heat, like the end point of something.
This was the global game in its final form, a private power-show for the benefit of a very small group of very rich people; all played out inside a disposable lighted hanger on a lovely, dusky winter plane 20 miles outside Doha.
Little wonder the Qatar players felt the moment. They were 2-0 down by half-time, playing at a level above their capacity, carrying all that weight, and exposed here, held up to the light by the fact that whereas people and presidents and slogans can lie, elite sport rarely does.
These players are not simply android specimens of the Qatar Aspire academy. They are, like everyone outside the elite here, essentially a group of workers, seekers of opportunity.
Qatar played poorly here. The players froze, ate the moment, and were easily beaten by Ecuador. There was a fear before this tournament that Qatar would turn out to be the worst host team the World Cup has seen. This is not the case. They are instead the worst host team at a World Cup by miles. In the moment, caught off guard, that flicker of tension felt hearteningly, reassuringly human.
Because the rest of the night was, frankly, a show with a hole in it, a performance of noisy, insistent unreality. But then, of course it was. Like so many things on this supercharged peninsula the Qatari national team is a kind of screenshot version of reality. Wandering around this place, with its gleaming generic structures, it can be hard to avoid this feeling of the unreal, of a kind of Warhol World Cup, all pastiche and glossy limitation, the fancy buildings made to look like “fancy buildings”, the vast lighted stadiums plonked down in an empty space because the show demands.
The Al Bayt is designed to resemble a massive-scale desert tent. And so it does, a vast and trunkless thing rising up out of the lone and level sands. This thing is a minor engineering miracle in its own right, a plateau of perfect green surrounded by desiccated scrub. But it is also a kind of monstrosity, constructed beyond any reasonable sense of scale, a grotesque and needless monument to human vanity.
Plus, like all of these structures, it will remain a kind of lighted mausoleum for the lives lost along the way. At one point in the opening ceremony a large white ghost could be seen rising up from pitch level, spectral, sad, lost-looking. This was of course La’eeb, the in-house mascot sprite, an inhabitant – it says here – of the ethereal mascot-verse. It is still hard to process this. Qatar’s mascot, the spirit animal of these blood-stained structures, is a ghost.
More unreality. Before kick-off the area behind one goal had been filled with a specially attired troupe of Qatar ultras, who filed in as one then spent the whole game shouting and cheering with what looked like real, genuine, choreographed excitement. Or at least real fake excitement. Maybe even real real excitement. Does it actually matter? The picture looks the same.
There was a genuine cheer before kick-off for the former emir, who waved from his box and then shook hands with someone who looked a lot like, and in fact was, Mohammed bin Salman. Relations have warmed. Saudi is, after all, Qatar’s former protector, the regional big brother. But a handshake here was a big deal.
Before long the great Gianni also popped up, boggle-eyed and beaming, and looking once again as surprised as anyone else to find himself at the summit. Infantino pronounced some random words referencing love and peace and everyone getting along together. The ground was flooded a deep purple shade. Dancers twirled and drums were pounded. Morgan Freeman, formerly of the US bid team, said stuff about peace and love.
And almost immediately Ecuador scored, had it chalked off, then scored again though a penalty kick rolled into the corner by Enner Valencia. The yellow shirts (real) roared and sang and danced as the rest of the stadium fell silent apart from an oddly taunting disco soundtrack.
Qatar were terrible in that opening spell. Spooked, heavy‑handed, incoherent in their passing, with a goalkeeper who seemed intent on cartwheeling about in a peeled-eyeball frenzy. But then imagine, if you can, that pressure, the build towards this game over half a lifetime.
Imagine all that when you’re not actually very good, when your basic existence is a hot-housed PR and soft-power project, doomed to be dead-headed at some as-yet unscheduled point. Maybe there is something to be said for building an actual living sporting culture before you stage the greatest show on earth. Expect amazing: expect amazingly bad at football.
And so it rolled on. The colours were good, the purple Fifa awnings, the yellow, the red, the deep green turf. Qatar had no way back on the pitch.
Faced with the task of scoring twice against an Ecuador team that had not conceded in five matches, they did at least produce more of a show, more of a sense of life in the middle of all that artifice.