‘My small country is now the centre of the world’


Qatar: The excitement is palpable in Doha’s bustling Souq Waqf.

Walking around the market, you can hear many different languages as fans wave the flags of the teams they support.

Sometimes, a group cheers spontaneously.

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The Mexican, Moroccan and Argentinian crowd are especially animated and watch the diners as they enjoy their food and glasses.

An artist puts the final touches on a charcoal portrait of Lionel Messi. Young children wear Qatari national jerseys.

“People from all over the world are here now,” Nasser, who did not share his last name, tells me, pointing to the crowd at the market. “For us Qataris – it is a proud day.”

After this, as soon as the opening ceremony starts, everyone’s eyes are fixed on the big screen in the cafe.

“I can’t describe how I feel. My small country is now the center of the world,” Naji Rashid Al Naimi tells me.

He heads The Qatari Dama Club in the market, a traditional game similar to chess. We sit in majlis – a traditional meeting – with our friends all gathered around the TV.

“We’ve gone through so much to get here. So many hardships and challenges,” Mr. Al Naimi tells me.

He and his friends are eager to tell us about the symbolism of the ceremony – the history of Qatar and how far the Gulf state has come from the old days in the desert to hosting the World Cup.

The crowd in the sitting area applauds as Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his father, former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, arrive. An archived video shows the former youth leader playing football in the desert.

However, till now there is controversy over football.

There was a last-minute ban on the sale of beer in stadiums only two days before the start of the latest tournament.

Fears have also been raised over how LGBT fans might be expected to be treated given the country’s strict adherence to Sharia law – homosexuality is illegal in Qatar – as well as the treatment of migrant workers.

But you may not know that this was one of the most controversial and debated World Cups ever – with the Qatari sitting in the middle of this group of men.

“It was a dream, now you can see it in front of you. I am very proud,” Salem Hassan Al Mohnadi told me. “Those who criticized us…we didn’t say anything. Today we have shown them.”

“These [criticisms] make me sad,” Saad Al Badr told me with a look at the Qatar-Ecuador game.

“For 12 years we were worried, not knowing if this was really going to happen or not. Now here we are.”

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the small and immensely prosperous Gulf state. There is still a lot to prove.

Next month, Qatar will have to strike a balance between being at the center of the world and maintaining its cultural, religious and Orthodox identity.

It is a big day not just for the host country but for the entire region where the tournament is taking place for the first time.

“This World Cup doesn’t just belong to Qatar,” Mr. Al Mohandi tells me. “It also belongs to all Arabs and Muslims.”

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