Qatar ready for World Cup curtain-raiser, but you wouldn’t normally bother opening them for this underwhelming kick-off

    AFTER a dozen years of raging controversy over corruption, tragedies and hideous human-rights abuses, we finally get to the actual football.

    This may be a World Cup in a nation which is too small, played at the wrong time of year and in a culture alien to most of us.

    Qatar and Ecuador will meet in the World Cup curtain raiser at the Al Bayt Stadium

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    Qatar and Ecuador will meet in the World Cup curtain raiser at the Al Bayt StadiumCredit: Getty
    The 22nd World Cup gets underway in Qatar on Sunday

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    The 22nd World Cup gets underway in Qatar on SundayCredit: AP

    But, four weeks from now, that famous golden trophy will be lifted and champions will be crowned.

    Fifa’s increasingly-deranged boss Gianni Infantino — a man who staged a love-in with Vladimir Putin at the last World Cup — has been ordering us to concentrate on football rather than politics.

    So here we go then, at 4pm UK time, a curtain-raiser to the greatest sporting jamboree on Earth which you normally wouldn’t open your curtains to watch if it was being played in your back garden.

    Qatar, ranked 50th in the world, against Ecuador, 44th in the standings — two nations who possibly shouldn’t even be at the World Cup at all.

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    Hosts Qatar have never qualified for the finals, while their opponents have been up to their necks in bother over the eligibility of full-back Byron Castillo — an affair which almost saw them kicked out.

    And after this tournament, won by the Qataris under false pretences, was moved from summer to winter, this fixture was switched from Monday to Sunday in a World Cup that they are making up as they go along.

    At least the latest U-turn, the 11th-hour banning of alcohol inside stadiums — for rank-and-file supporters but not the corporate freeloaders, of course — could be seen as a minor triumph for human rights.

    Any beer lover will tell you that the inability to pay 12 quid for a Budweiser is a blessing rather than a curse.

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    To be in Doha in the build-up to this tournament is a deeply strange experience.

    This is a hastily-constructed, ultra-modern metropolis built around what was a small, traditional Arab city — at the cost of the lives of thousands of mistreated migrant workers — the skyscrapers as well as the tournament’s eight stadia, all within 30 miles of one another.

    But despite the cultural differences and the moral outrages, you can still discover pockets of World Cup fever.

    In central Doha, you will see thousands of locals walking around in replica Argentina shirts with Lionel Messi’s name and No 10 on their backs.

    As soon as their own team are dumped out — and Qatar are highly likely to follow South Africa as the only previous World Cup host nation to exit at the group stage — they will throw their weight behind Messi and Co.

    The little maestro’s move to Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain made sure of that.

    Downtown Doha is now starting to resemble the united-nations melting pot of previous World Cups — the Latin Americans, in particular, travelling in vast numbers as they always do.

    Scores of global TV companies have set up their studios in front of the Souq Waqif — the historic marketplace which gives their coverage a rare backdrop of authentic Arab culture in this marble-and-concrete jungle.

    Close by, dozens of soporific camels doze around.

    And at a neighbouring booth, tourists are invited to ‘Try On Qatari Dress — It’s Amazing!’

    But football fans must strive to find an oasis of western hedonism in this desert.

    On the 14th floor of a central hotel, there is an Irish bar serving Guinness at £15 a pint to supporters with deep pockets and raging thirsts from every corner of the globe.

    Qatar won the right to stage this World Cup, way back in 2010, thanks to Fifa corruption — with their crooked former boss Sepp Blatter recently admitting this had been a mistake due to the host nation’s inadequate size.

    As culture wars raged over migrant-worker deaths and the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar — as well as those beer prices — many who would normally follow England at major tournaments chose to stay well away.

    And that was before an appalling Qatari World Cup ambassador recently described homosexuality as a ‘damage of the mind’.

    These issues have completely overshadowed Qatar’s own footballing prospects.

    Their Spanish manager Felix Sanchez presides over a squad consisting entirely of players who compete in Qatar’s domestic league — and who have been frequently withdrawn from club matches to go on lengthy remote training camps.

    Sanchez said: “We consider ourselves very competitive and worthy of being here, even if the favourites, on paper, should be Ecuador.

    “We are a small country and have to work with what we’ve got. The players have spent long periods of time, making a massive sacrifice, being away from their families, outside of the country, to make sure we are as competitive as possible.”

    Given the brown-envelope culture which earned Qatar this World Cup, it was little surprise that Sanchez was asked about internet conspiracies suggesting Ecuador’s players had been offered bribes to throw Sunday’s opening match.

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    He replied: “There is a lot of dangerous misinform­ation on the internet but we have prepared for many years to prove we are strong and competitive.

    “Nobody will destabilise us, we are not affected by it and we are excited and motivated for this historic day.”

    The Al Bayt Stadium is ready to play host to the opening game of the World Cup

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    The Al Bayt Stadium is ready to play host to the opening game of the World CupCredit: Getty

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