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.
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 FIFA organizers will hope those issues fade away once the action starts. In a bizarre news conference on the eve of the tournament, Gianni Infantino, the head of FIFA, soccer’s international 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 — the U.S. is among the countries that have purchased the highest number of the nearly 3 million tickets sold.
“I think we’re going to take it all the way,” a bullish Dayton Kendrick, a Houston 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 outsize 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.
The country spent more than $200 billion to modernize in the 12 years since it was awarded the World Cup to the surprise of many, building brand new stadiums and hotels to accommodate the onslaught of fans and players. Teams will play a total of 64 games in eight stadiums across Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut.
Over the past decade of rapid development, building often done in sweltering heat by migrant laborers from countries like Nepal and India, Qatar has faced criticism and calls for significant reforms of how it treats those workers.
Human rights group Amnesty International has alleged that Qatari authorities had failed to investigate thousands of migrant deaths over the past decade, some before World Cup projects began, while suggesting that some of the deaths were linked to unsafe working conditions. Qatar has acted to improve the system, the group has said.
“There have been historical abuses of the last 10 years,” said human Amnesty researcher May Romanos. “Be it those who died, be it those who are injured, be it those who lost their wages to construct and prepare Qatar to deliver on this World Cup.”
“This World Cup could be used as an opportunity to shed light on the situation and push the government and department to introduce those changes,” she added.
Human rights organizations also criticize Qatar, where same-sex relationships are illegal, for its oppression of LGBTQ people. Some LGBTQ soccer fans have decided against traveling to Qatar, with authorities maintaining that all fans are welcome, but that visitors should respect the nation’s culture, in which public displays of affection by anyone are frowned upon.
“For the fans themselves that are going to Qatar, the message for them right now is to honestly just watch out for their safety,” said Dr. Nas Mohamed, the first-known Qatari to publicly come out as gay. He is applying for asylum in the U.S.
The Qatari government has not responded to NBC News’ requests for comment. In a previous statement it has said it is “committed to engaging collaboratively and constructively … to further improve standards for all migrant workers in Qatar.”
In a statement to The Associated Press about the treatment of LGBTQ people, the Qatar government said it “does not tolerate discrimination against anyone.”
Infantino, the FIFA chief, accused Western countries of trying to apply a “one-sided moral lesson” with the criticism.
“I am European. For what we have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before giving moral lessons,” he said, adding that “many things are not perfect but reform and change takes time.”
Time has not eased criticism of the previous World Cup hosts, Russia, but FIFA and Qatar will hope the next four weeks are more about soccer than politics.