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The 2022 World Cup in Qatar begins, warts and all

Al-Bayt Stadium in al-Khor hosts the opening game of the 2022 World Cup between host country Qatar and Ecuador.
Gabriel Bouys
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AFP via Getty Images
Al-Bayt Stadium in al-Khor hosts the opening game of the 2022 World Cup between host country Qatar and Ecuador.

DOHA, Qatar — The 2022 World Cup began Sunday in Qatar with the host country's national soccer team taking on Ecuador and ultimately losing, 2-0.

In a world divided in so many ways, the tournament is a rare uniter. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, projects five billion people will tune in, again making the month-long event the most-watched-sports spectacle on the planet.

The start also signals the end of a 12-year buildup that's been more complicated and controversial, than perhaps any World Cup before.

Awarded to Qatar in 2010, the World Cup was born amidst bribery. That's according to officials from the U.S., which lost the bidding war at the end. Then the tournament was moved to November/December because of concerns about excessive heat in Qatar during the traditional June/July World Cup window. Then human rights groups began revealing the toll on migrant workers tasked with building the World Cup's infrastructure. And then concerns arose about potential mistreatment of LGBTQ fans in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.

It's enough to make you want to sit down with a nice cold beer to stop your head from spinning.

Oops!

As the football finally kicks off, the question for many is, how to embrace this wildly popular event, warts and all?

For some the answer is don't embrace it at all.

For others, fair to say most, the World Cup is not something from which you simply walk away. And, says longtime critic and activist Jules Boykoff, you don't have to.

"My approach in general is that we need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity," said Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon. "We can both cheer for the teams that we like at the World Cup, while also fiercely critiquing the injustices that are [baked] into this World Cup."

And so, with complex, bifurcated plan in hand, first we cheer.

Allowed to be excited

For the first time in eight years, U.S. fans have a rooting interest in the World Cup. And the thrill of this moment isn't lost on the players.

"I think you're absolutely allowed to be excited that it's the World Cup," star American forward Christian Pulisic said this week in Qatar. "Maybe it adds a bit more pressure, it adds a bit more of that anxiety, y'know that feeling going into the game. But I think now that we're here, we're just taking it all in and appreciating the moment. But when it comes down to preparation for the match, in the way that we train, the way that we have our meetings together and communicate as a team, we treat it as a normal game. But like I said, we're allowed to be excited and playing our first World Cup is not something that everyone gets to do."

Christian Pulisic (second from the right) of United States reacts during a training session at Al Gharafa SC Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Christian Pulisic (second from the right) of United States reacts during a training session at Al Gharafa SC Stadium on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

It's a first World Cup for 25 of the 26 players who'll suit up for the U.S., which plays its opening match Monday, Nov. 21st at 2 pm ET against Wales.

Defender DeAndre Yedlin is the sole World Cup veteran, having played in the 2014 event in Brazil. Teammates have lined up with questions, but Yedlin says there's only so much wisdom he can pass along.

"I've told them it's really hard to explain the experience," he said this week. "It's a personal thing. Everyone has different experiences. I can tell them that when I was young, I went in and didn't know what to expect, just took it for what it is and try to stay present. It's a journey, it's an experience they'll remember for the rest of their lives."

The U.S. is tied with Ecuador as the second youngest teams in Qatar. But youth and World Cup inexperience hardly mean the Americans are new to international soccer.

"For the first time, every single [U.S. player] who matters is playing for a big club in a high class European league," said Hal Phillips, author of "Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & the Making of Soccer in America." "They're getting training and vetting in a way most American teams have not. You know [you] might have [had] three or four guys who do that in 2010, 2014. But now everyone is playing for big clubs and I can't wait to see what effect that has."

The midfield of Tyler Adams (English club Leeds United), Weston McKennie (Italian club Juventus) and Yunus Musah (Spanish club Valencia) is the best this country's ever had, Phillips said, and the U.S. "is going to go where they take us."

How far?

Even excited American fans have to be realistic. The U.S. is not one of the favorites – Phillips and other soccer pundits say 2026, when the U.S., Mexico and Canada host the World Cup, is a more realistic time to dream big dreams – and even getting out of a group that also includes England and Iran, isn't a guarantee.

Of course nothing is when the matches start. Although some pretty strong hunches are likely to pay off.

If not the U.S., then who?

This is fairly simple – most lists of the top contenders start with Brazil and Argentina, followed by a gaggle of European countries.

For as good as it always is, Brazil hasn't won a World Cup in 20 years. The experts say this Brazilian squad is as good as any, powerful on offense, stingy on defense with a roster, as per usual, stocked with first-name soccer wonders: Neymar, Ederson, Marquinhos, Casemiro, Allison, Vinicius Junior and, personal favorite, Fred.

Brazil's South American rival Argentina, has only one story line that matters. In the form of a question. Can the great, GREAT forward Lionel Andres Messi, known the world over by his last name, finally lead his country to his first World Cup title. Argentina's won a couple, but before Messi's time. Last year, Argentina won a thrilling championship, over Brazil, at the Copa America to give Messi his first major trophy with the national team.

Thrilling but....not the World Cup.

That's unfinished business for the 35-year-old legend who also could, should, break the late Diego Maradona's record of 21 World Cup appearances for Argentina. Messi has 19.

Among the Euro contenders, Spain is in a tough group (who isn't?) with 2014 champion Germany, a tough defensive side in Costa Rica and Japan. But with young (he'll turn 20 during the tournament) star midfielder Pedri playing his normal exciting, mistake-free football, and head coach Luis Enrique getting his team to keep playing pressing, dominating soccer, the Spaniards have a shot.

As does defending champion France. Or shall we say did?

It's fair to use the word "decimated" now that the French team has suffered its latest injury loss. Star forward Karim Benzema was ruled out of the tournament after tearing a thigh muscle during training this weekend. France already had lost Christopher Nkunku and Presnel Kimpembe to injury. And before the World Cup roster was finalized, Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante went down – they played key roles when France won the title in 2018.

Les Bleus still have their 2018 phenom Kylian Mbappe ready to go. Still young at 23, he was the revelation of the last World Cup, when he became the first teenager since Pele to score in the final and win the championship. But he'll need help, of course, and it's uncertain whether the MASH unit France has become can supply it.

Mbappe and more

When it comes to players to watch in Qatar, Mbappe is at or near the top of any list.

Other young stars in waiting include Brazilian forward Vinicius Junior, who appears to have escaped, a bit angrily, the pre-World Cup injury bug; England's humble midfielder Phil Foden and his 19-year-old wealthy wunderkind teammate Jude Bellingham; and Canada's speedy defender Alphonso Davies, whose hamstring has become a focus of national attention.

Among the oldsters, let's say 30 and up, there's the aforementioned Messi, who always gets paired in the "who's the better generational player?" conversations with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. At 37, Ronaldo's back for his fifth World Cup, where he'll try to become the only player to score in five.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in action during a training session on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Clive Mason / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal in action during a training session on November 19, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

Lists are unfair because they're always incomplete. This one included. But before we move on, special mention for one player who's made a comeback unlike any other.

In July of last year, Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen's heart stopped during a match. Saved on the field with a defibrillator, Eriksen was travelling to the hospital in an ambulance when he reportedly told his fiancée he was done playing soccer.

Doctors concurred – he was likely finished. But then his recuperation started, he was fitted with an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) and eventually Eriksen became a soccer player again. And a good one.

To the delight and amazement of many, Eriksen is in Doha preparing for Denmark's opening match Tuesday against Tunisia. It's a realization of the goal he set in his early stages of recovery.

The ultimate cheer then, for Eriksen, transcends national boundaries and soccer allegiances.

It's the kind of feel-good story FIFA desperately wants out of this tournament, but ironically, even this one has a hitch.

No there's no dirt that's been dug up on Christian Eriksen. To the contrary – his, and his teammate's moral stand brings us back to that other part of this contentious World Cup. The part Jules Boykoff characterized as the fierce critique.

Speaking to reporters in Doha, Eriksen confirmed that Denmark's team captain, Simon Kjaer will wear a "OneLove" rainbow armband during the tournament. Eriksen said he supports it. Captains from a reported ten European teams will do the same as a show of support for diversity and inclusion in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

Different armbands and an angry defense

FIFA had a different idea for captain's armbands – late this week, the governing body announced a plan to run social awareness campaigns throughout the World Cup, flashing positive social messages on stadium screens, flags and, they hoped, on armbands. Each round of the tournament will have a different, loosely defined theme, such as: #SaveThePlanet and #EducationForAll.

We'll have to wait until the quarterfinals for #NoDiscrimination.

Critics called the campaign a milquetoast attempt to appease World Cup critics.

But Saturday, on the eve of the tournament's start, FIFA President Gianni Infantino hardly was in an appeasing mood.

He turned his press conference opening remarks into a lengthy and often angry monologue, in which he swung back at a dozen years of criticism. The Swiss-born Infantino directed much of his anger at fellow Europeans, accusing them of hypocrisy for criticizing Qatar's human rights record and treatment of migrant workers who built the World Cup infrastructure.

"We in Europe, we close our borders and we don't allow practically any worker from those countries, who earn obviously very low income, to work legally in our countries," Infantino said. "If Europe would really care about the destiny of these people, these young people, then Europe could also do as Qatar did.

"But give them some work. Give them some future. Give them some hope. But this moral-lesson giving, one-sided, it is just hypocrisy."

According to The Associated Press, the human rights group Amnesty International responded by saying Infantino was "brushing aside legitimate human rights criticisms" by dismissing the price paid by migrant workers to make the tournament possible.

Qatari officials appear to have taken the same hard line as Infantino. In late October, Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, went on television and said the criticism of his country was "an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced."

In response to a plea by right's groups to create a compensation fund for migrant worker's families, Qatar's labor minister called it "a publicity stunt."

The FIFA social awareness campaign kicks off, in round one of the group stage, with the theme #FootballUnitesTheWorld. That seems like a heavy lift right now, considering FIFA and Qatar's angry pushback against critics.

But when the curtain goes up Sunday, on Qatar vs Ecuador, it will launch a month of soccer reverie. That'll now compete with the event's complexity. For billions worldwide, the decision looms – to embrace one, or the other, or both.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Supporters take photographs in front of 2022 signage ahead of the FIFA World Cup on November 20, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.
Alex Pantling / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Supporters take photographs in front of 2022 signage ahead of the FIFA World Cup on November 20, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.