The FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar


DOHA, Qatar — Since the first World Cup 92 years ago in Uruguay, planet Earth’s quadrennial bonanza of its favorite sport has never been in such an unusual setting. Here comes the strangest of the 22 World Cups so far, in the 18th World Cup country (one of which has been divided by two), with all the strange charms and doubts.

From the fifth largest country in the world (Brazil) in 2014 to the largest country in the world (Russia) in 2018, the World Cup moves to the rich and small 164th largest, Qatar, a country slightly smaller than Connecticut. From recent hosts Japan and South Korea (together 164 million people when they performed in 2002), to Germany (82 million), to South Africa (51 million), to Brazil (202 million), to Russia (144 million), The World Cup has reached a country of about 2.9 million people, the vast majority of whom are guest workers.

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In this small country, they will shoehorn 32 teams into eight groups to determine a winner over 29 days, plus an expected 1.2 million fans, including those from the Arab world celebrating the first Arab World Cup, even those dancing around Doha’s on Thursday night. beautiful souq. They’ve wedged themselves into eight stadiums, none more impressive than any other, so that it’s possible to stare from a highway and see two without moving the eyeballs.

“It’s too small a country,” an 86-year-old Swiss man told a Swiss newspaper earlier this month. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it.” The comments sounded strange because they came from Sepp Blatter, who served as president of FIFA, the governing body of the football world, from 1998 to 2015, including in late 2010 when 22 FIFA voters chose Qatar over the United States, South Korea, Japan and Australia. .

Furthermore, it is November, which makes this World Cup a drastic outlier. From its origins in South America and Europe to its most recent edition in Russia four years ago, the World Cup has been a summer affair. But from the moment Blatter opened the envelope to pull out a card at a ceremony in 2010 that read “QATAR,” a card now on display in Qatar’s national museum, it seemed clear that a sport so demanding could not take place in the evil summer air of the Press. (or Arabian) Gulf.

That meant this World Cup here was pushed back to November, with daytime temperatures typically in the 80s and nighttime air breathable and sweet. That meant this World Cup gave a hard elbow to the world’s national leagues, such as Europe’s big five in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, which had to suspend play for a month. That meant the chances of injury or reduced fitness have increased, with most competitions churning until last weekend and the usual inactive pre-World Cup month removed.

Washington Post sports reporter Steven Goff traveled to Doha, Qatar, for his eighth World Cup before the tournament kicks off on November 20. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

That tight calendar hurt its worst in Munich earlier this month, when the rigors of competitive play so close to a World Cup happened to get in the way of Senegalese star Sadio Mane, one of the world’s best players. A leg injury he sustained that night required the surgical reattachment of a tendon to a fibula, making his initial inclusion in the Senegal squad seem far-fetched, and recently culminated in his crushing removal from the squad.

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Even as the World Cup has arrived as the sound of the Islamic call to prayer echoes through the metropolitan area, it has sparked global bickering over cultural mores. An epitome occurred on Friday when Qatar, where alcoholic beverages are only served in certain hotels, reversed its previous decision to allow the sale of beer in stadiums, long considered an essential football ingredient in many other cultures.

Much more controversially, the country has drawn criticism for its human rights practices, including its treatment of guest workers, especially those whose construction work built this World Cup, and its criminalization of gay relationships. “It’s ridiculous that the World Cup is here,” said Dutch manager Louis van Gaal. “FIFA says they want to develop football there. Those are bulls —. It’s about money, about commercial interests.”

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Qatar did not shy away from a rejoinder. Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani told a German newspaper earlier this month: “It is ironic when this tone is taken in Europe in countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It sounds really arrogant and very racist.”

And in an unsolicited, defiant and lengthy opening statement at his press conference here on Saturday — the statement alone lasted nearly an hour — FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended the World Cup in Qatar. “I think what we Europeans have been doing around the world for the last 3,000 years,” he said, “we should apologize for the next 3,000 years before we start teaching people.” He called it “teaching moral lessons, one-sided,” and said, “It’s just hypocrisy.”

The way of life in Qatar couldn’t be more different from, say, the way of life in Brazil, where celebratory fans form a flawless World Cup backdrop as the only country to have qualified all 22 times.

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With all of the above spinning around, a certain randomness seems possible football-wise. The 32 national teams have not had the usual time to yellow again, as they reconvene to play in eight groups of four, three matches each, with the top two from each group advancing to a 16-team knockout stage. The rush of it all can benefit some teams and hinder others.

The US men’s World Cup squad will face Wales, Iran and group favorites England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Which makes it plausible that it could be here that the world is breaking Europe’s recent World Cup stranglehold, which has produced four different winners from the last four events – Italy, Spain, Germany, France – and 13 of the 16 semi-finalists. in that period. . If that trend finally eases, it could be because of Brazil, the tournament favorite and five-time winner, trying to end a drought that his fastidious fans find egregious: 20 years without a title and harrowing losses to Europeans – France (2006 quarter-finals), Netherlands (quarter-final 2010), Germany (semi-final 2014 in a haunted house 7-1 defeat in Brazil) and Belgium (quarter-final 2018). Brazil will bring an attack with Neymar, Richarlison, Vinicius Junior and a knack for quite a bit of beauty.

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If not Brazil, it could be Brazil’s neighbor friend to the south, Argentina, who, like Brazil, went through 17 matches of World Cup qualifying with zero losses.

France still have the cup from 2018 but has a habit of following highs with lows while England has great hopes based on the past few years but poor form of late while Germany has not been Germany in the last two major international tournaments and Spain has shifted from a great generation to a precocious one.

Speaking of generations, Belgium brings back its best ever, semi-finalists last time, though possibly a notch past its maturity, while the Netherlands returns after an agonizing absence in 2018. The same goes for the United States, a young team runner-up in Northern America charm for Canada, appearing for the first time in 36 years as one of the drought-breaking darlings.

The other darling, Wales, makes its first appearance in 64, when it played creditably in a quarter-final in 1958, losing 1-0 to Brazil and budding icon Pelé, then just 17. Wales open against the United States on Monday, one day after the home team, Qatar, opens the whole series against Ecuador as the host team much better than expected when the envelope was opened 12 years ago.

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All the while, two of the most famous people in the world will try to bow: Cristiano Ronaldo, the 37-year-old Portuguese; and Lionel Messi, the 35-year-old Argentine goalscorer celebrated worldwide.

Messi has a troubled relationship with the past four World Cups already in his biography. He and Argentina reached a final in Brazil in 2014, losing 1-0 to Germany, and their squad has quality beyond it. “We have a very nice group that is very eager, but we think of going little by little,” Messi told CONMEBOL, the South American football governing body, in a recent interview. “We know that World Cup groups are not easy.”

If he and she drove off in a way that would please much of the world, it might eclipse even the exceptional idea of ​​where it all took place.

World Cup in Qatar

Your questions, answered: The World Cup starts in Qatar on November 20, about five months later than usual. Here’s everything you need to know about the quadrennial event.

Guide for groups: The US national soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star striker Christian Pulisic, qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement on the disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s an up-close look at how all the teams in each group doing it.

Worldview today: Even though the World Cup is only days away from the start, the rumors of boycotts are only getting louder. Football fan protesters have expressed contempt for Qatar’s autocratic monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and mistreatment of migrant workers.

The best of the best: More than 800 players, representing 32 countries and six continents, will gather in Qatar for four weeks for a World Cup competition. These players are likely to promise a breakaway tournament or hold the key to their team exceeding expectations.

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