AL-BAYT STADIUM (Al Khor): Sometimes, to exhale, you blow steam. Qatar was breathing fire. Throwing up happy, friendly flames as it finally was able to show the world all that it had been dreaming, designing and quietly working away for all these years of doubt from the western world. It was as if they were shaking off all the derision, like you’d flick off the desert sand that blows in these parts and settles on your being, then continue to move forward. It was that kind of feeling. You could not escape it.
Qatar needed to finally exhale. It had been quiet for too long. It was evident in the rousing way they sang their national anthem, paradoxically, by a native people who are in minority in their land, compared to the nearly 80% of the foreign workforce that helps hold up their country, once a backward pearling centre till they discovered natural gas and all that it could do. On Sunday, in the evening desert chill, at the gleaming, packed Al-Bayt stadium in the Al Khor town which literally means creek, by singing higher than the others, they were only reaffirming to the world that this belongs to them, that they had created it. And that, the world is welcome.
Outside, with the systems in place outside, the shuttles and the scans well-oiled and smoothly run, the glitz of VIP guest and the regular ticket-buyer in brief, unsweaty mingle ushered in by the predominantly Indian and African volunteer army, inside it was a thunderous show of sound, light and colour. And the rich, reassuring baritone of Morgan Freeman telling us what we already know about the unifying power of football, but we giddily drink it in as if we were hearing it for the first time. But that’s what Freeman and his voice can do.
FIFA World Cup 2022 opening ceremony
It was a sweet irony. His words brought the mind back to the sight at the media buffet two days ago, when rows of cheerful African staff were serving lines of predominantly white media, who waited plates in hand, for the day’s meal. The reverse symbolism was powerful as it was amusing.
To think that when the European media were continuing to point out all the ills and doings of a discriminatory state, but itself stepping past the line of casual racism as they did, it was Freeman, a black and one who had so easily slipped into the role of Nelson Mandela on screen, that they were stopping, looking up from their laptops to listen to. But then, that’s what Morgan Freeman and his voice can do.
Down on the Al-Bayt turf, so eager was Qatar to kick off things, as if before something else was ‘exposed’ or brought to light by another watchdog world waiting to see it fail or revel in the focus taken away, that the actual World Cup was already underway, even before the stadium announcer could complete his stadium countdown. It was such a relief. The eagerness showed when their national team, and its shape, almost immediately went askew and all over the place, allowing a fine Ecuador side to settle down and make fine use of the width of the pitch. First time, big stage jitters? Maybe, as the football took over and played the equalizing force.
Enner Valencia (L) of Ecuador celebrates after scoring their team’s second goal. (Getty Images)
No player in history has ever scored two goals in the first game of the World Cup, Enner Valencia of Ecuador could have got a hattrick in the first half itself had VAR discovered less than half a foot between Michael Estrada and his marker five loud, helter skelter minutes off the start. For a while, everyone was confused why play would not be resumed after Valencia had leapt over his man and headed in a fine goal after Saad Alsheeb, Qatar’s goalkeeper, probably taken in by the enormity of the occasion, madly rushed into the melee leaving his goal open and forgetting to collect the ball in the process. Then you realised that the VAR court was in session – yes, now that the game is finally here, the other issues will ensure to muddle things up.
The Ecuadorians were not to be disheartened for long. In the 13th minute, Valencia again found himself sizing up Al Sheeb with a ball from deep. The host goalkeeper hacked him down, Valencia slotted almost half-heartedly from the spot, but in reality, was a smartly taken penalty to go one-up.
Then just past the hour, our man rose again and headed home to more or less settle the issue. That they did as the game ended 2-0, but it would not ebb the fervour the locals in the stadium were feeling. It showed in the pluck and endeavour shown by the home side to try to come up with something and not disappoint their support at home. Something tells us that even as the football takes over and the big guys take over their stage over the course of this winter month in the desert, this will not go away.