“It will be the best World Cup,” FIFA president Giovanni Infantino said in a rambling press conference on the eve of the World Cup.
But with the opening ceremony of perhaps the most opposed World Cup of recent times hours away, the streets of Doha – deserted and non-festive – seem to have missed the memo of the supreme boss. There’s no verve or music of Sao Paolo or the friendly smiles and tipsy tribes of Moscow, giving Doha the feel of a soulless play, the stage for which is yet to be erected.
The fans, the heart of any sports event, bear the brunt of the ever-changing goalposts of rules and regulations, and the residents – Indians, Pakistanis and contract workers from Africa easily outnumbering the locals – are equally nonchalant about hosting 831 of the best players in the world.
A combative FIFA head, however, did his best to shield the host from all the criticism – “Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arabic. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel like a migrant worker.”
The Infantino outburst would have ensured a chuckle or two extra in the USA camp ahead of its opening game against Wales – the Swiss-Italian lawyer’s culture appropriation had a similar ring to the now-shamed former New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s “as a New Yorker, I am a Muslim. I am a Jew. I am Black. I am gay. I am a woman seeking to control her body” passionate appeal to voters in 2017. Cuomo resigned four years later, but Infantino, just elected for a fourth term, wants to use his aggressive play to help FIFA divert the negative attention from a World Cup festival that, so far, has offered very little reasons for celebrations.
A starry opening act headlined by the heartthrob of every teenage girl – Jungkook from South Korean band BTS – and the party tunes of the Black Eyed Peas perhaps can belatedly kickstart the World Cup.
However, the game to follow – Qatar’s Cup debut against Ecuador – holds little promise of building on the momentum. But a repeat of the result from the sides last meeting – a 4-3 win for Qatar – in 2018 will come as a welcome breeze from the adjoining Gulf for the frayed nerves of FIFA, Qatar and this World Cup.