Qatar marked its FIFA World Cup debut with a loss to Ecuador on Sunday, but by becoming the first Middle Eastern nation to host the tournament it has inspired a wave of pride throughout the region.
From cafes in Erbil to pubs in Istanbul to stadiums in Gaza City, excited spectators gathered around television screens ahead of the opening game of a tournament hoping to break stereotypes in the Islamic world.
In a cafe in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, fans new and old drank tea as they debated the merits of the participating teams and reflected on the world’s greatest soccer competition to be held in Qatar.
Rasul Farid, 26, said he first saw a World Cup in 2010 when South Africa hosted the final.
“I did not expect that [in 2010] that one day an Arab country would host the World Cup,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is positive that the World Cup in an Arab country gives a different impression of us, far from stereotypes. I am here to support the Qatar team.”
Khalil Ahmed, 29, said he first saw the international soccer festival in 2006 when it was held in Germany.
“I didn’t think that one day it would be in an Arab country. I thought the World Cup was only for the West and the United States, not for us.”
Ali Kareem, 22, watched the opening match in Iskan, a traditional area in Erbil known for broadcasting football matches. His first memories of his football are from 2007, when Iraq won the Asian Cup and he started celebrating in the streets with his father and friends.
“Love [football]and we are very happy that the World Cup is being held in an Arab country,” he said, adding that he would support Brazil.
In Turkey, soccer fans prepared to follow this year’s tournament despite the country’s national team failing to qualify for the 32-team tournament.
In the heart of Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district on Sunday night, the Corner Irish Pub was packed with soccer fans watching the opening game of the World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador. There was a mix of tourists and locals, and most of the people seemed to be supporting Ecuador.
“We will show everything [the matches] throughout the month in English,” Zafer, the pub manager, told Al Jazeera, adding that his money was in Argentina to win the cup.
Ersoy Ozdem, a veteran sports journalist, told Al Jazeera that he would support Argentina during the competition. He said he believed the World Cup could be held in any country, but pointed to problems regarding the timing of the competition, which came in the middle of the European club season.
“In my opinion, the World Cup cannot be held in November, because we are not used to it,” Ozdem said, adding that a particularly high number of players are currently injured and will not be able to play.
Tulay Demir, a Turkish journalist and writer who grew up in the Netherlands, supports Oranje.
“Although I believe that Brazil will win the cup, as someone who is half Dutch, I am very happy to know that my country is a part of that,” Demir told Al Jazeera. Demir is traveling to the Netherlands this week and plans to watch his team take on Ecuador on Wednesday at her friend’s bar in the town of Dieren.
For Demir, it is very valuable that the World Cup is held in a Muslim country, but he expressed concern regarding the main controversy surrounding the event: the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.
The Guardian newspaper has reported that 6,500 migrants workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had died in the country since 2010, when Qatar won the World Cup.
The Qatari government has stated that these figures, provided by the respective countries’ embassies, include deaths of people not working on World Cup projects. “The death rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population,” he said. he said.
The government said there were 37 deaths between 2014 and 2020 among workers directly linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums, three of which were “work related.”
“The World Cup that is being organized in this region is very prestigious, but the death of many guest workers has cast a shadow over it,” Demir said.
“The lives lost have greatly damaged the image of Qatar. She had a very good opportunity in her hands and I don’t think they took advantage of it,” she added.
In the besieged Gaza Strip, an opening ceremony was held in Gaza City to mark the first day of the World Cup.
Hundreds of Palestinian fans and athletes gathered at the Palestinian Stadium Pavilion, where fans raised the Qatari and Palestinian flags amid cheers in support of the Qatari team.
Murad Badr, 42, said that he came here today with his children as a fan, athlete and sports enthusiast.
“I have been watching the World Cup since 1994. This is the first year that it has been hosted by an Arab country, and the host is wonderful. The preparations are impressive.”
Badr told Al Jazeera that Qatar has gone to great lengths to set up stadiums and infrastructure.
“Today we came to support Qatar and the rest of the four participating Arab teams: Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.”
Abdullah al-Saqqa, 37, a Palestinian national table tennis player, told Al Jazeera that he was lucky to have visited Qatar three times before.
“From 2006 to 2022, between these years, there has been a qualitative leap in the State of Qatar. Qatar is proving its worth: its Emir, its government and its people,” al-Saqqa said.
“Everyone sees that Qatar deserves this coronation and can send a message to the world that we as Arabs and Muslims can stand on the side of international super powers.”
Shahd Salouha, 23, was following the opening activities of the World Cup with great interest.
“I am so passionate about football that I listen to the games on the radio if the power goes out at home. Sometimes I look for a place outside the house so I don’t miss the games, ”he said.
Salouha says that her favorite national team is Brazil, but she also likes Spain and Germany.
“I have been following the preparations for the World Cup for a whole year and everything I see is very impressive. The museums, the stadiums and the preparations are great,” he said.
“This is a source of pride for all of us as Arabs, and we are proud that this is an Arab and Muslim country with such great capabilities.”
Salouha also expressed appreciation for Qatar’s supporting role in the Gaza Strip.
“Qatar is known to be one of the most supportive countries for Gaza, so they have all the love and respect, and it is a great country in word and deed.”
Maram Humaid contributed reporting from Gaza City. Paul Osterlund contributed reporting from Istanbul. Meetak AL Khatib and Stella Martany contributed reporting from Erbil.