Heading to a 'Bedouin tent' stadium for an unprecedented World Cup

Ecuador supporters cheer ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group A football match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha on November 20, 2022. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP)

DOHA (AFP) — Tens of thousands of people streamed Sunday, Nov. 20, towards a spectacular stadium in the shape of a traditional Bedouin tent for the kickoff of the first World Cup held in the Arab world.

With hours to go before hosts Qatar take on Ecuador in the Al-Bayt Stadium, 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of Doha, a country that many people say should never have been allowed to host football's showpiece tournament was about to do just that.

Thousands of people arrived at the vast Lusail train station where the subway line built especially for this tournament at a cost of $36 billion ends and spectators boarded a fleet of buses for the final leg of their journey.

The security forces appeared tense, aware that the eyes of the world are on this Gulf state.

Once the spectators arrived at the spectacular venue, camels and horses lined the road to the turnstiles.

Carlos Alvear, an Ecuadoran who lives in Ecuador, said: "It's really special to be here. It's the first World Cup in the Middle East, it's historic and Ecuador is here for the opening match.

"To be honest, it's all a bit bizarre. It's pretty quiet, even if there are more Ecuadorans than I thought there would be. But all these buildings look pretty empty."

For a Qatari supporter who gave his name only as Abdallah, it was an exciting moment.

"We have been waiting for this moment for 12 years," he said. "We have every confidence for this festival... We trust in our team. We have ambition but are realistic."

He was confident of victory against the South Americans and predicted his team would be runners-up in their group and go through to the next round -- where England could await.

"Today we will win, but we will be second behind the Netherlands. Then against England, we will win," he said with a smile.

Danny, a supporter from the English city of Norwich, is here to support his country but will "jump on the bandwagon today" and support Qatar.

His friend who gave his name only as Abdul, from Sheffield in northern England, had brought a Qatari flag and was wearing a red top under his England shirt in case Qatar scored.

Danny was staying in the shipping container accommodation set up for visiting supporters for two weeks and said it "isn't quite what he was expecting". 

Away from the opening match, thousands of Mexican and Argentinian fans thronged the Corniche seafront promenade in the centre of Doha.

Leopold Fes, a 65-year-old Belgian, said he was finding it difficult to accept the last-minute decision to ban the sale of alcohol at stadiums in this strict Islamic state.

"I don't think it will be like other World Cups," he said. "No alcohol makes it strange. Football and alcohol go together for a lot of people."