What you need to know:
- The country has fought off critics who relentlessly questioned how Doha won the tournament hosting rights.
- From the time you land at Hamad International Airport, you get a sense that the country is indeed ready for the tournament, the first ever to be held in the Middle East and the Arab world.
After 10 years of preparation that involved massive infrastructural investments, including building an entire city and seven modern stadiums, Qatar is finally ready to host the biggest football parley in the world.
The country has fought off critics who relentlessly questioned how Doha won the tournament hosting rights.
From the time you land at Hamad International Airport, you get a sense that the country is indeed ready for the tournament, the first ever to be held in the Middle East and the Arab world.
Entry for those carrying the digital Hayya card that acts as an visa is smooth and fast, with immigration officials, often stern and inscrutable in many airports, efficiently clearing the football tourists.
The airport, which has undergone massive expansion, has colourful billboards of the tournament with helpful World Cup volunteers ready to give a hand.
The streets of Doha are clean and neat like pressed cloth right off the laundry.
Many are lined with flags of the 32 competing teams fluttering in the air, but the crowds of exuberant home fans were not conspicuous to this writer.
Truth be told, the ordinary Qatari is seemingly not confident of how the host team, appearing at this stage for the first time, will perform.
Qatar play South American side Ecuador today from 7pm at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium situated in the city of Al Khor, some 40 kilometres north of Doha.
It will be the opening match of the tournament.
“We’re happy to host the whole world but we know Qatar cannot compete against big nations,” Hamid, an attendant at the shiny airport metro station, summed up the wealthy nation’s feelings.
More than 1.5 millions visitors are expected in the country during the World Cup period, many from Europe, the United States and South America.
Brazil are the hot favourites to win a record-extending sixth title.
Selecao, under the pragmatic Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite, have been impressive and are not the number one ranked nation in the world by FIFA by chance.
Brazil punched their Qatar ticket unbeaten in the gruelling South American qualifiers, scoring 40 goals in 17 matches and conceding just five.
The squad has an array of deadly forwards led by Neymar, supported by the tricky Vinicius Junior, Antony, Richarlison, Raphinha, Rodrygo, Martinelli and Jesus.
Brazil’s neighbour Argentina have gone 36 matches unbeaten.
They showed their form with a 3-0 thrashing of European champions Italy in their Finalissima fixture in June.
The Albicelestes have Messi, the world’s best player of his generation, who is hungry to lay his hands on a trophy that has eluded him.
Reigning champions France, spearheaded by recent Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, and only the second teenager to score in a World Cup finals Kylian Mbappe, will be looking to escape the historical fate of defending champions.
Regular contenders Germany, title dreamers England, a young and talented Spain, a revamped Netherlands and ambitious Portugal complete the list of genuine contenders.
Africa will want to erase the painful memories of Russia 2018 where none of the teams from the mother nation qualified for the round of 16.
Senegal look the strongest bet to make the round of 16, but with the late exclusion of Sadio Mane due to injury, the Teranga Lions’ prowl in Doha may have lost plenty of its menace.
Meanwhile, organisers say this will be the first carbon-neutral World Cup.
The magnificent stadiums will be the stage for a tournament whose talking points thus far have been on controversies rather than competitions.
Jogo bonito – the beautiful game. Let the talking be on the pitch, and may the best team win.