Soccer High stakes for Qatar as World Cup starts


 The World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Sunday in a high-stakes event for the tiny nation which has faced a barrage of criticism and staked its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament, the first held in the Middle East and most expensive in history.

In a show of Gulf solidarity, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was among the political leaders arriving in Doha ahead of the opening ceremony to be held in a tent-shaped stadium at 1440 GMT, before the first match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador.

The tournament marks a culmination of Qatar's soft power push on the global stage and a show of strength after emerging from a 3-1/2 year boycott by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, which ended in 2021. The event will also see the first direct flights from Israel to Qatar for the World Cup.

Onstage, South Korean singer Jungkook of K-pop boy band BTS will perform a new official tournament song called Dreamers alongside Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi. The U.N. secretary-general and Algeria's president will be among foreign dignitaries.

Qatar and FIFA hope the spotlight will turn to act on the pitch after facing mounting criticism over foreign workers' rights, LGBT rights, and social restrictions. Organizers have denied allegations of bribery for hosting rights.

Denmark's and Germany's team captains will wear One Love armbands, their teams said, as they prepare to compete in a conservative Muslim state where same-sex relations are illegal.

Alcohol has been banned at stadiums, and organizers have warned against public displays of affection while saying all fans are welcome to the event.

As some visitors savored their first sips of beer at the launch of the FIFA Fan Festival on Saturday in central Doha, hundreds of workers, all men, gathered in a sports arena in an industrial zone on the city's edges where no alcohol was being served. They will be able to watch matches there.

"Of course, I didn't buy a ticket. They're expensive and I should use that money for other things - like sending it back home to my family," Ghanaian national Kasim, a security guard who has worked in Qatar for four years, told Reuters.

Neville, a 24-year-old Kenyan, and compatriot Willy, also 24 and a Manchester City fan, were hired as security guards during the event. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it's definitely worth it," said Neville.

Wealthy gas producer Qatar is the smallest nation to host soccer's biggest global event, organized at a cost of $220 billion. Crowd control will be key with some 1.2 million visitors expected - more than a third of Qatar's population.

Many of the laborers who toiled to prepare tournament infrastructure will watch from the sidelines, priced out of the stadiums. Doha has been slammed for its treatment of migrant workers but points to labor reforms against exploitation.

Laborers were putting final touches on outdoor gardens and sidewalks on Saturday and carting construction material to a site near the National Museum, where fans in Argentina jerseys were among dozens milling about.

With a limited number of hotels in Qatar, fans will also fly in on daily shuttle flights from cities like tourism hub Dubai, as Qatar shares the World Cup economic boon with neighbors.

"When we came in it was like a bit of a work site," England fan Neil Gahan said in an area in Doha housing fan portacabins.

The cabins were "not brilliant", he said, but there were sports facilities nearby and massive screens. "Yeah, I think it's going to be all right".

The World Cup is equal parts sporting event and international celebration — and for many fans, alcohol plays a large role. That's been true in stadiums, and in bars that open early or stay open late to show games.

But the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is unlike any before it. Just two days before the tournament's first match in the Muslim nation, officials made the surprise announcement that fans won't be allowed to drink beer at the country's eight World Cup stadiums — a reversal of a previously announced policy.

Alcohol is tightly regulated in Qatar, where customs agents are under orders to seize any booze visitors try to bring into the country.

It's one of many cultural clashes and potential legal issues that fans might encounter in Qatar, particularly if they're traveling from more open societies. Here's a quick guide:

This World Cup will be drier

For a sign of how dramatic the shift in Qatar is, consider that FIFA successfully pressured Brazil to change its federal laws to allow alcohol sales in its stadiums before it hosted the 2014 World Cup — overturning a ban that had been enacted due to violence at its stadiums.

"Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we're going to have them," then-FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said back in 2012. "Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that's something we won't negotiate."

Fans and beers have been a common sight at previous World Cup tournaments, like this 2014 scene from Brasilia, Brazil. But in Qatar, officials revoked a plan to allow regular spectators to drink beers on stadium grounds.

Buda Mendes/Getty Images

But that was then. In Qatar, regular fans won't have access to alcohol at matches. Only spectators in the stadiums' high-end luxury suites will have easy access to booze. Outside of the stadiums, fans can still drink at special World Cup gathering spaces, or at specially licensed restaurants, bars, and hotels around the country.

In general, the public consumption of alcohol is illegal in Qatar — an offense that can bring up to six months in prison and a fine of more than $800, according to the Library of Congress. Anyone smuggling alcohol into the country can face up to three years in prison, the agency said.

Fans face religious restrictions

Islam is the official religion of Qatar — and anyone found to be proselytizing for other religions or criticizing Islam "may be criminally prosecuted," the State Department said, in a factsheet about Qatar for World Cup visitors.

It's also not safe to assume you can practice your faith openly: "Qatar allows some non-Muslim religious practice in designated areas like Doha's Religious Complex, but all faiths are not accommodated equally," the U.S. agency said.

In addition to import restrictions on alcohol and pornography, "travelers cannot bring pork products" into the country, the State Department said in a video about Qatar's laws.

Public speech is also limited

Speech that's deemed critical of the Qatari government could trigger an arrest. Those laws apply both to spoken words and social media.

And while past World Cups have brought a heaping of argy-bargy — scenes of rival crowds yelling or even singing obscenities at one another — open conflicts can bring big problems in Qatar.

"For example, arguing with or insulting others in public could lead to arrest," the State Department advisory video stated.

Argentina fans kiss in the crowd while watching the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2014.

Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Sex and other social issues

"Homosexuality is criminalized in Qatar," the State Department notes.

"Advocates say that LGBTQ people in Qatar are subjected to conversion therapy, harassment by authorities, and imprisonment," as NPR's Becky Sullivan says in her rundown of controversies surrounding the host country.

Such reports have fueled outrage, and authorities will be under scrutiny for how they handle LGBTQ fans and symbols.

Visitors to Qatar can also face harsh punishments for "indecent acts and the act of sexual intercourse outside of marriage," the Library of Congress noted, citing Qatari law.

Recriminations range from a fine or six months imprisonment for anyone found to have committed "immoral" actions or gestures in public to up to seven years in prison for someone having sex outside of marriage. Public debauchery can also carry a sentence of up to three years in prison, according to the Library of Congress.

If a pregnant fan goes to Qatar for the World Cup, they should be prepared to show a marriage certificate if they need prenatal care there, the State Department said.

Republic of Ireland fans pose before a FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier in Cardiff, Wales. When fans head to Qatar, they'll need to keep their stomachs, chests, and shoulders covered.

Harry Trump/Getty Images

Fans will need to cover up, despite the heat

Qatar's oppressive heat forced the tournament to move from the summer to November and December — but fans who find it hot there should limit how much skin they show.

Dress codes in many public areas require that "both men and women cover shoulders, chests, stomachs, and knees, and that tight legging be covered by a long shirt or dress," the State Department said.

As with alcohol, clothing standards often shift according to the degree a neighborhood or venue caters to foreigners.

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