Qatar made their FIFA World Cup debut with a defeat to Ecuador on Sunday, but by becoming the first country in the Middle East to take part in the tournament, it has boosted pride across the region.
From restaurants in Erbil to shopping malls in Istanbul and stadiums in Gaza City, excited spectators gathered on television before the opening game.
At a cafe in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, new and old fans sipped tea as they discussed the merits of the participating teams and previewed the world’s biggest tournament coming to Qatar.
Rasul Farid, 26, said he watched the World Cup for the first time in 2010 when South Africa participated in the final.
“I didn’t expect it [in 2010] that one day the Arab world will participate in the World Cup,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is interesting that the World Cup in an Arab country will give a different perspective to us, far from the impossible. I have come to support the Qatari team.”
Khalil Ahmed, 29, said he first watched the Fiesta World Cup in 2006 when it was held in Germany.
“I never thought that one day I would live in an Arab country. I thought the World Cup was only for the West and America – not for us. “
Ali Kareem, 22, watched the opening game in Iskan, an old neighborhood in Erbil famous for playing football. The earliest memories of football come from 2007 when Iraq won the Asia Cup and he started celebrating in the streets with his father and his friends.
“I like it [football]and we are very happy that the World Cup is taking place in an Arab country,” he said, adding that he will support Brazil.
In Turkey, football fans were prepared to follow this year’s tournament even though the national team did not make it to the 32-team tournament.
In the heart of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district on Sunday evening, the Corner Irish Pub was packed with soccer fans watching the World Cup opener between Qatar and Ecuador. There was a mix of tourists and locals, and most people seemed to be from Ecuador.
“We will show everything [the matches] a whole month in English,” Zafer, a pub manager, told Al Jazeera, adding that his money was on Argentina to win the cup.
Ersoy Ozdem, a former sports journalist, told Al Jazeera that he will support Argentina in the tournament. He said that he believed that the World Cup could be held in any country, but noted the timing of the tournament, which is coming in the middle of the season for European teams.
“The World Cup cannot be held in November in my opinion, because we are not used to it,” Ozdem said, adding that many players are injured at the moment and will not be able to play.
Tulay Demir, a Turkish journalist and writer who grew up in the Netherlands, is supporting Oranje.
“Although I think Brazil will win the cup, as someone who is Dutch, I am happy to know that my country is part of it,” Demir told Al Jazeera. Demir will travel to the Netherlands this week and plans to watch his team face Ecuador on Wednesday at a friend’s bar in the town of Dieren.
For Demir, it is very important that the World Cup is being held in an Islamic country, but he also expressed his concerns about the main controversy that surrounds the event – the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.
The Guardian reports that 6,500 workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in the country since 2010, when Qatar won the World Cup.
The Qatari government has said that the figures, provided by the country’s embassy, include the deaths of people not participating in World Cup activities. he said.
The government says 37 people died between 2014 and 2020 among workers directly connected to the construction of World Cup stadiums, three of which were “work-related”.
“The World Cup that is being organized in this region is very popular, but the death of many tourists has cast a shadow,” said Demir.
“The lives lost have seriously damaged Qatar’s image. It had a great opportunity in its hands, and I don’t think it was able to use it well,” he added.
In the besieged Gaza Strip, the opening ceremony was held in Gaza City to mark the first day of the World Cup.
Hundreds of Palestinian fans and athletes gathered at the Palestine Stadium Hall, where the fans raised the Qatari and Palestinian flags amid cheers to support the Qatari team.
Murad Badr, 42, said he came here today with his children as a sports fan, runner and sports fan.
“I have been watching the World Cup since 1994. This is the first year that it is hosted by an Arab country, and the hosting is amazing. The preparations are impressive.”
Badr told Al Jazeera that Qatar has put in a lot of effort to build stadiums and infrastructure.
“Today, we have come to support Qatar and all four participating Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.”
Abdullah al-Saqqa, 37, a Palestinian tennis player, told Al Jazeera that he was lucky to have visited Qatar three times before.
“From 2006 to 2022, between these years, there has been a leap in the State of Qatar. Qatar is showing itself – its Emir, its government, and its people,” said al-Saqqa.
“Everyone feels that Qatar deserves to be given this kingdom and it can send a message to the whole world that we, as Arabs and Muslims, can be on the side of the great powers of the world.”
Shahd Salouha, 23 years old, was following the opening of the World Cup with great interest.
“I love football so much that I listen to the matches on the radio when my house is out of electricity. “Sometimes I look outside the house so I don’t miss the match,” he said.
Salouha says his favorite national team is Brazil, but he 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 interesting. The museums, stadiums, and facilities are great,” he said.
“This is a source of pride for all of us as Arabs, and it gives us the opportunity to be proud that this is an Arab and Muslim country with such great potential.”
Salouha also expressed his appreciation for Qatar’s support to the Gaza Strip.
“It is known that Qatar is one of the countries that support Gaza the most, so they have love and respect, and it is a great country in words and actions.”
Maram Humaid contributed reporting from Gaza City. Paul Osterlund contributed reporting from Istanbul. Meethak AL Khatib and Stella Martany contributed reporting from Erbil.