Geneva: The first World Cup in the Middle East is one month away, nearing the conclusion of a 12-year journey for Qatar that has transformed the nation.
On November 20, the biggest tournament in football will finally get started a couple hours after sunset at the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium — a new venue north of Doha built for the World Cup. The maroon-and-white clad national team from the host country will open a tournament against the team from Ecuador.
All 64 games over the course of 29 days involving 32 teams will be held in the Doha area, with many more shows and cultural events planned for a football-led party.
Promises of “the best World Cup ever, on and off the field” were made on Monday by Fifa president Gianni Infantino.
About 1.2 million visitors are expected in Qatar for the first World Cup to be played in the middle of the traditional European football season, a move made to avoid the desert heat in the Middle East.
There is one bit of unprecedented late doubt, however, with the actual lineup of the tournament still under appeal. Chile and Peru have gone to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to challenge Ecuador’s qualification, claiming it used an ineligible player.
“As you look around the country today, at the state-of-the-art stadiums, the training pitches, the metro, the wider infrastructure, everything is ready and everyone is welcome,’’ said Infantino, who moved from Zurich to live in Doha for the final year of preparations.
The infrastructure is there. The challenges for Qatar are on the human scale for a country of only 350,000 citizens in a population swelled to 2.6 million by migrants working in construction, domestic and service sectors, as well as in white-collar jobs.
“The world will see that medium-sized and small countries are able to host global events with great success,’’ Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, told the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month..
As for security, Qatar will rely on expertise and hardware from allies, including sniffer dogs, an anti-drone system and a surveillance airplane from France, and a warship and riot police from Turkey.
This year’s World Cup will be hosted on the smallest territory since Switzerland in 1954 and will uniquely have most of the fans living together in one city.
Turkey is sending about 3,000 riot police for a tournament that should see a Western-style exuberance on Doha’s streets.
A party scene is being created in Doha that will likely be a hub for ravers from across the Gulf states, with ticket prices running from $45 to $7,500.
Lineups confirmed this month include DJs David Guetta and Fatboy Slim, rappers DaBaby and Tyga, and singers Amr Diab and Jorja Smith, performing at open-air festivals deep into the Doha night.
Close to the main airport, the Aravia festival site for 5,000 people is being run by a Saudi music promoter, and the nearby 15,000-capacity Arcadia Spectacular brings a flavour of storied English festival Glastonbury, including its giant, fire-breathing metal spider stage.
Post Malone, Maroon 5 and Black Eyes Peas are on the concert programme at Doha Golf Club.
It all adds up to the pledge Qatari officials have made since 2009 when the hosting campaign started: We love football like you, come and enjoy it, but be respectful of our cultural traditions.