A million supporters from around the world will descend on the small but wealthy Gulf nation to watch stars from 32 countries face off over the next four weeks in the men’s soccer tournament, which is the world’s second-largest sporting event after the Olympics.
The time of year and location — this is the first World Cup to take place in the Middle East — meant the event had long promised to be unlike any other before it, but Friday’s news that alcohol sales would be banned from stadium perimeters highlighted the cultural clash of the conservative emirate hosting a global party.
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World Cup teams and activists have also voiced concerns for residents and visiting fans after years of buildup to this year’s tournament dominated by criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ people.
The tiny, energy-rich nation’s ruling family and organizers FIFA will be hoping those issues fade away once the action starts. In a bizarre press conference on the eve of the tournament, Gianni Infantino, the head of world soccer’s governing body, accused the host’s critics of hypocrisy.
Qatar plays Ecuador at 11 a.m. ET Sunday in the opener, with the United States playing its first game against Wales at 2 p.m. ET Monday.
“It’s hard to describe for me,” U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Matt Turner told NBC News. “It’s one of the greatest honors in my life,” said Turner, who also plays for English Premier League leaders Arsenal.
While the U.S. is not expected to take home the trophy, Americans have flocked to Qatar — after local residents the U.S. purchased the highest number of the 3 million tickets sold.
“I think we’re going to take it all the way,” a bullish Dayton Kendrick, a Houston, Texas native who lives in Doha, said of the U.S. team. “It’s going to be a force to reckon with.”
The U.S. failed to qualify for the last World Cup but now boasts a young, exciting squad who largely play for big teams across Europe. It will also face England and Iran in Group B over the next two weeks before the tournament’s knockout rounds commence. England is among the favorites alongside Brazil, France and Argentina.
Kendrick is one of many expats who have made Qatar home in recent years as it transformed into a modern hub playing an outsized role on the global stage. Qataris number around 350,000, though the conservative Muslim nation is home to around 3 million people from 90 countries in total.