Qatar celebrated its FIFA World Cup debut with a defeat to Ecuador on Sunday, but becoming the first country in the Middle East to host the tournament has sparked a wave of pride across the region.
From cafes in Erbil to pubs in Istanbul and stadiums in Gaza City, excited spectators gathered around television screens ahead of the opening match of a tournament, any hope will shatter stereotypes of the Islamic world.
At a café in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, old and old fans sipped tea as they debated the merits of the participating teams and reflected on the world’s biggest football competition coming to Qatar.
Rasul Farid, 26, said he first watched a World Cup in 2010 when South Africa hosted the final.
“I did not expect [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 will give a different impression of us, away from stereotypes. I’m here to support the Qatari team.”
Khalil Ahmed, 29, said he first watched the international football celebration in 2006 when it was held in Germany.
“I didn’t think it would be in an Arab country one day. I thought the World Cup was only for the West and America, not for us.”
Ali Kareem, 22, watched the opening game in Iskan, a traditional area in Erbil known for streaming football matches. His earliest memories of football date back to 2007, when Iraq won the Asian Cup and he celebrated in the street with his father and friends.
“I love [football]and we are very happy that the World Cup will be held in an Arab country,” he said, adding that he would support Brazil.
In Turkey, football fans geared up to watch this year’s tournament despite the country’s national side failing to qualify for the 32-team tournament.
In the heart of Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, the Corner Irish Pub was packed on Sunday night with football fans watching the World Cup inaugural match between Qatar and Ecuador. There was a mix of tourists and locals, and most people seemed to choose Ecuador.
‘We show everything [the matches] in English all month,” Zafer, the pub’s manager, told Al Jazeera, adding that his money was aimed at Argentina to win the cup.
Ersoy Ozdem, a veteran sports journalist, told Al Jazeera that he would support Argentina during the match. He said he believed the World Cup could be held in any country, but noted issues regarding the timing of the competition, which comes halfway through the European club season.
“The World Cup cannot be held in November in my opinion, because we are not used to it,” Ozdem said, adding that a particularly large 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 the Orange.
“Although I think Brazil will win the cup, as a half-Dutch I am very happy to know that my country is part of it,” Demir told Al Jazeera. Demir is going to the Netherlands this week and plans to see her team play against Ecuador on Wednesday at her friend’s bar in the city of Dieren.
For Demir, it is very valuable that the World Cup is held in a Muslim country, but she expressed concern about the main controversy surrounding the event: the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.
The Guardian newspaper reports that there are 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 government of Qatar has stated that these figures, provided by the respective country’s embassies, include the deaths of people not working on World Cup projects. said.
The government said there were 37 workers’ deaths directly related to the construction of World Cup stadiums between 2014 and 2020, three of which were “work-related”.
“The World Cup organized in this region is very prestigious, but the death of many guest workers has cast a shadow over it,” said Demir.
“The lost lives have damaged Qatar’s image enormously. It had a very good opportunity in its hands and I don’t think they were able to make good use of it,” she added.
In the besieged Gaza Strip, an opening ceremony was held in Gaza City to mark the first day of the FIFA World Cup.
Hundreds of Palestinian fans and athletes gathered in the Palestine Stadium Hall, where the fans raised the Qatari and Palestinian flags to cheers of support for the Qatari team.
Murad Badr, 42, said he came here today with his children as a fan, athlete and sports enthusiast.
“I’ve been following the World Cup since 1994. This is the first year it’s hosted by an Arab country, and the host country is amazing. The preparations are impressive.”
Badr told Al Jazeera that Qatar has made great efforts in setting up stadiums and infrastructure.
“Today we have come 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 he was lucky enough to have visited Qatar three times before.
“From 2006 to 2022, between these years, there has been a great leap forward in the state of Qatar. Qatar is proving itself – its emir, its government and its people,” said al-Saqqa.
“Everyone sees that Qatar deserves this coronation and can send the message to the world that we, as Arabs and Muslims, can stand on the side of the international superpowers.”
Shahd Salouha, 23, followed the opening activities of the World Cup with great interest.
“I am so passionate about football that I listen to the matches on the radio when the electricity goes out in my house. Sometimes I look for a place outside the house so as not to miss games,” she said.
Salouha says 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, stadiums and preparations are great,” she said.
“This is a source of pride for all of us as Arabs, and it gives us a sense of pride that this is an Arab and Muslim country with such great capabilities.”
Salouha also expressed her gratitude for Qatar’s supportive 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 reported from Istanbul. Meethak AL Khatib and Stella Martany contributed reporting from Erbil.