By JENNA FRYER
National AP Editor
AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman holds out a yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador suffering from a rare spinal disorder in an image meant to portray the inclusion in a country facing international criticism over its human rights record.
It wasn’t the biggest moment of Sunday’s seven-act World Cup opening ceremony ahead of the match between hosts Qatar and Ecuador. The loudest cheers were reserved for the leaders of the Middle East and Africa who watched from their luxury suites in the Al Bayt stadium inspired by Bedouin tents.
In fact, it was Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who drew thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from the sequel.
“We worked hard, together with many people, to make this one of the most successful tournaments,” he said. “We have made every effort and investment for the good of all mankind.”
He sat between FIFA President Gianni Infantino and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who won the World Cup for the small Gulf nation 12 years ago.
“How beautiful for people to put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together at the same time,” said Sheikh Tamim, his words translated into English on a video screen inside the stadium.
“I wish all the participating teams a magnificent football performance, high sportsmanship and a time full of joy, excitement and fun for all of you,” he continued. “And may there be days that inspire kindness and hope.”
He then said, “Welcome and good luck to you all,” in his only words spoken in English.
Sheikh Hamad, considered the modernizer of Qatar during his 18 years as ruler, further delighted the crowd by signing an official World Cup shirt given to him by his son. He then held the shirt up in front of the crowd.
Qatar, which has a population of 3 million, mostly migrant workers, has spent more than $200 billion preparing for the World Cup. Seven new stadiums have been built, including the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium north of Doha.
The opening ceremony aimed to showcase Qatar to the world through its culture on the theme of “Bridging the Distances”. Creative director Ahmad Al Baker wanted the ceremony to mean “a coming together for all of humanity, an invitation to be one, bridging all differences with humanity, respect and inclusion”.
“Finally we have reached the opening day, the day you have been looking forward to,” said Sheikh Tamim. “We will follow, and with us the whole world, God willing, the great celebration of football, in this vast atmosphere of human and civilized communication.
“People of different races, nationalities, faiths and orientations will come together here in Qatar, and around screens on every continent to share the same exciting moments.”
His words hit home as Sheikh Tamim was joined in the stadium suite by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, two leaders who had boycotted Qatar for years. The leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the other two nations involved in the boycott, were not present.
There were no major Western leaders present, as Qatar faces intense scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers who prepared the country for the World Cup, as well as the LGBTQ community. Gay and lesbian sex is criminalized in Qatar.
But among those who attended the opening game were UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The Crown Prince of Kuwait came, as well as the Director General of the World Health Organization and the President of Djibouti. Also present was King Abdullah II of Jordan.
They listened to BTS’s Jung Kook, while Qatari singer and producer Fahad Al Kubaisi released the single “Dreamers”, produced specifically for the World Cup.
Then came remarks from Infantino, who spoke in Arabic, Spanish and finally English to officially open the tournament.
“Dear friends, welcome, welcome to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” Infantino said in English. “Welcome to celebrate football because football unites the world. And now let’s welcome the teams and let the show begin.
As Tiesto’s “The Business” blared over the loudspeakers, Qatar and Ecuador entered the pitch and the World Cup officially began.
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