The 22nd World Cup’s opening game really was not a football match, and not just because it was such an easy Ecuador win. What we actually watched was a political summit, a genuine geopolitical event.
You only had to look at the most lucrative seats of all, rather than the swathes of empty ones as the hosts were beaten 2-0.
There, Fifa president Gianni Infantino sat between the emir of Qatar and Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan having shaken hands with Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the first time earlier on.
If they were paying much attention to the pitch itself, it’s difficult to describe what they actually watched. It in no way resembled a normal football match, and the second half barely mattered at all.
There was an odd sort of morality play to it, mind, even amid the many shames of this World Cup.
It reminded you that there are some things in sport you just can’t pay for.
Qatar can afford £220bn in infrastructure, David Beckham, Morgan Freeman and even to send their national team off to an unprecedented international camp in preparation, but they can’t actually make bad players a good national team. The least popular hosts have put in one of the worst-ever opening performances.
Ecuador just physically intimidated a 2-0 win out of Qatar, a fact that was distilled in Enner Valencia’s pummelling header for his second goal. The only pity from a football perspective was that the resurgent hero, and current tournament top scorer, had to go off injured.
It was affording the Qatari players some mercy, and at least prevented outright humiliation in terms of the scoreline. There were still numerous odd moments, most of them actually after the opening ceremony. A very nervous Qatar couldn’t impose themselves on the game in any way, meaning it was a curiously patternless game, elevated only by Ecuador deciding to pick it up – and usually send it up – as and when they required. Which was not that often.
Throughout this, there was a bizarrely sterile atmosphere long before the crowd started to leave. It was all the more conspicuous when you consider how audibly raucous football culture in this region can be. There were extended periods of… silence. And it wasn’t all shock at Saad Abdullah al-Sheeb’s goalkeeping.
The only noise came from fans behind the goals, the Ecuador crowd chanting “si se puede” – and yes, indeed, they could – and a Qatari group entirely decked in maroon constantly waving and bouncing.
It just didn’t feel like a World Cup opening game in that sense, either.
That’s mostly because this was primarily a political occasion.
That is the point of hosting this World Cup, after all, with this opening ceremony kicking off the biggest sportswashing event in history.
All of this was made overt by the seating arrangements. They ensured this was a genuinely geopolitical news event. It is little over five years since Qataris briefly feared Saudi Arabia would invade. The Emir’s rallying stance throughout that is one reason he received such a rousing response.
This was one of the main factors behind this bid. As one source put it to The Independent in the build-up: “It’s a lot harder to invade somewhere if they’ve just hosted a World Cup.”
Infantino, who received applause of his own, would doubtless say it proves the merit of Fifa’s campaign that “football unites the world”.
On those lines, and especially in the context of a real geopolitical split over this tournament, there were some pointed lines in an admittedly visually dazzling opening ceremony and Freeman’s narration.
He eventually revealed that he was actually in the stadium, to the delight of the crowd, and came out with the following: “Instead of accepting a new way, we demanded our own way.”
After Infantino’s bizarre opening speech, it is difficult not to read that in the context of so much criticism of this World Cup.
That’s also why it is worth remembering what all of that discourse is actually about. It is that this World Cup has been made possible only by a labour system described as “modern slavery” and deaths that Qatar won’t even count, but doubtless number into the thousands.
Is the supposed spirit of unity extended to them? It doesn’t seem likely given Qatar and Fifa haven’t even moved yet on compensation.
As for the actual football, there wasn’t much of that to speak of. Ecuador didn’t need to play much of it. Qatar couldn’t.
The reality of this team was revealed in the opening moments when al-Sheeb came for a free-kick, missed it, then missed it again. He was just hugely fortunate that his own inexplicable leap ensured Michael Estrada was fractionally offside, meaning Valencia’s header was disallowed.
It didn’t exactly spare the goalkeeper or Qatar for long, though.
Everyone had seen enough. Ecuador had seen enough. The tone was set, albeit not by the VAR call to disallow the goal. That was correct.
Any lingering argument that Qatar are a good team, however, was very far from correct. They were dismal. It didn’t take much longer for Ecuador to go ahead, Valencia so easily deceiving al-Sheeb into a foul inside the box. The former West Ham United striker himself scored by hitting it low, before rising for an admirably thunderous header to make it 2-0.
Qatar, for their part, did rally to prevent this becoming a humiliation in terms of the scoreline. And that may well prove costly for Ecuador given what Senegal and the Netherlands could do to the hosts.
At the same time, it was hard to blame them. This must have been a game like no other the Ecuadorians have played. It was far too much for Qatar’s players.
The stadium was almost two-thirds empty by that point, and the obvious question was whether it was all worth this – so much financial cost, so much moral cost?
You only had to look at the most important seats of all for the real answer.