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



My small country is now the centre of the world

The bustling Souk Waqif market in Doha is buzzing.

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

From time to time the group erupts into spontaneous applause.

The Mexican, Moroccan and Argentinian crowds are especially lively and visitors watch as they enjoy their food and hookah.

An artist puts the finishing touches on a portrait of Lionel Messi in charcoal. Young children are dressed in the national jersey of Qatar.

“People from all over the world are here now,” Nasser, who did not give his last name, tells me, gesturing at the crowd in the market. “For us Qataris, this is a day of pride.”

Then everyone watches the giant screens in the cafe as the opening ceremony begins.

“I can’t describe what I feel. My little country is now the center of the world,” Naji Rashed Al Naimi tells me.

He is the head of the Qatari Dama club in the market, a traditional game similar to chess. We are sitting in the Majlis, the traditional living room, with our friends gathered around the television.

“We went through a lot to get here. So many difficulties and challenges,” Mr. Al Naimi tells me.

He and his friends want 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 applaud as the Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, and his father, the former Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, arrive. An archive video shows the young former leader playing football in the desert.

So far though, controversy has overshadowed the football.

The latest was the last-minute ban on beer sales in stadiums only two days before the start of the tournament.

There have also been fears over how LGBT fans can expect 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 wouldn’t know this was one of the most contentious and debated World Cups – sitting among this group of Qatari men.

“This was a dream, now you can see it in front of you. I’m so proud,” Salem Hassan Al Mohanadi tells me. “All those who criticised us… we said nothing. Today we’ve showed them.”

“These [criticisms] sadden me,” Saad Al Badr told me with one eye on the Qatar-Ecuador game.

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

Image caption,Naji Rashed Al Naimi said he felt his country was “now the centre of the world”

This has not been smooth sailing for the small and hugely affluent Gulf state. It has a lot to prove still.

For the next month Qatar has to strike a balance between being at the world’s centre stage and maintaining its cultural, religious, and conservative identity.

It’s a big day not just for the host country but for the whole region, where the tournament is being held for the first time.

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

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