DOHA, QATAR — On Saturday evening, on the pristine streets of Souq Waqif in Doha, somewhere in the middle of the incense burners and the spice merchants and the squawking aviaries, something approximating a World Cup at last began to take shape.
Restaurants had been decked out in the flags of the 32 competing nations. There were shops selling headdresses bearing America’s stars and stripes, the Argentine sun, Brazil’s Ordem e Progresso. And there were hundreds of fans, their colors pinned to their chests or wrapped around their shoulders, mixing and milling and singing and smiling.
It felt, on Saturday, like something had ended: FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s extraordinary, strafing attack on anyone he could think of was a fitting culmination to 12 years of controversy and scandal and recrimination about the fact that soccer’s crown jewel, the biggest sporting event in the world, has been brought here, to this tiny enclave of absurd wealth.
The question now is what comes next. There are tickets still unsold for a fistful of group stage games. The expected influx of fans has not yet started. Barely 48 hours before the first game, Qatar’s authorities decided that — actually — beer would not be sold at stadiums. The goal posts, it turns out, can still shift.
Qatar has spent 12 years preparing itself, and FIFA the same amount of time steeling itself, for this World Cup to begin. What sort of World Cup it will be, though? We are about to find out.