Doha (AFP) – Qatar inaugurated the fifth stadium that will host World Cup games in 2022 with a domestic cup tie on Friday watched by thousands who either recently recovered from coronavirus or received vaccinations.
Al-Thumama stadium, 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) south of central Doha, and inspired by the lace-like Islamic gahfiya cap, will seat 40,000 fans in the Gulf nation, the most controversial hosts in a generation.
Since being selected in 2010, Qatar has faced bad headlines and searing criticism of its record on everything from women’s rights and labour issues to treatment of LGBT people and its political system.
The nation of 2.5 million people, only 333,000 of whom are Qataris, has insisted that it has done more than any country in the region to openly address the issues and tackle criticism constructively.
Rights groups Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have credited Qatar with some improvements but insist there is more to be done and enforcement of rights reforms, particularly around labour, has been patchy.
“Since we won the World Cup (rights) we have received a lot of criticism. There is constructive criticism that we tried to take on board,” said Fatma al-Nuaimi, head of communications at the Supreme Committee that is organising the 2022 tournament.
“We also try not to let this criticism stop us.”
– World Cup ready –
The inaugural fixture, the Emir Cup, is in honour of the nation’s all-powerful ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani who attended Friday’s fixture along with FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
It saw Al-Sadd, under former Spain legend Xavi Hernandez, take on Al-Rayyan, coached by former France boss Laurent Blanc, with Al-Sadd winning 5-4 after a penalty shootout.
“It’s my first time inside a stadium. It’s amazing,” said Julie Rule, 25, a beautician from the Philipines.
Around the stadium, which is located between suburban Doha and the blue-collar Industrial Area, migrants who outnumber Qataris seven to one gathered on dusty parcels of land to play impromptu games of pre-match cricket and football.
The area around Thumama, designed by Qatari architect Ibrahim Jaidah, is best known to expatriates in Qatar for the sole off-licence permitted to sell alcohol and pork, as well as the country’s only authorised Christian churches.
Energy-rich Qatar has so far inaugurated five of the eight stadiums that will be the home of the first World Cup in the Middle East.
In addition to Al-Thumama, Qatar has so far inaugurated new-build Ahmad Bin Ali, Al-Janoub and Education City stadiums alongside the refurbished Khalifa ground.
Ras Abu Aboud, Al-Bayt, and Lusail, which will host the final in 14 months, are yet be opened.
Following the World Cup, Al-Thumama’s capacity will be reduced to 20,000, with a sports clinic and a boutique hotel set to open on site as tiny Qatar seeks to avoid the burden of superfluous stadia.
Fans were able to apply for tickets to Friday’s event if they either tested positive for virus antibodies, or have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Qatar, which says it vaccinated more than three quarters of its population, will review infection data ahead of the Arab Cup regional test tournament due to kick off in November.