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After all the controversy, the 2022 World Cup finally gets under way in Qatar on Sunday, when the hosts face Ecuador.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino had taken centre stage on Saturday during an extraordinary hour-long monologue in a pre-tournament press conference.
Qatar coach Felix Sanchez, meanwhile, is hoping for the best when the Gulf nation make their World Cup debut in Al Khor, while there was a late injury blow for France, with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema ruled out of the tournament.
Here, the PA news agency looks back on Saturday’s events at the 2022 World Cup and ahead to Sunday’s action.
Qatar aiming to put on a good show
With all of the pre-tournament headlines surrounding off-field issues, Qatar coach Felix Sanchez is determined his side will produce a performance in the Group A opener against Ecuador in Al Khor.
Qatar will be making their World Cup debut on Sunday, and Spaniard Sanchez said: “We will try to give a good performance and be competitive.
“We have to be realistic around possibilities, but we have to do well.”
Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro has challenged his side to rise to the occasion. He said: “I asked the team: What do you want?
“Are you just here to take part in a World Cup, or do you want to show the very best of Ecuador?”
Infantino in the spotlight
FIFA president Infantino did not hold back when he addressed a pre-tournament media conference in Doha on Saturday.
During an extraordinary hour-long monologue, Infantino took aim at European critics of Qatar – and then found himself attracting wide-spread condemnation for a series of bizarre comments.
Infantino declared “today I feel gay” and “I feel (like) a migrant worker” early on in his speech, referencing the discrimination his family faced as Italian migrants in Switzerland and how he was bullied owing to his red hair and freckles.
The FIFA president also claimed Europeans “should be apologising for next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons to people”, in reference to the controversies over Qatar’s human rights record.
After his lengthy speech eventually came to a close, Infantino was keen to stress “everyone is welcome” at the World Cup despite concerns over whether members of the LGBTQ+ community will be safe in Qatar given the country’s laws which criminalise same-sex relationships.
Players look to stay focused on football
England defender Eric Dier says it would be wrong to ignore off-field matters in Qatar, but admits constant questions about the cloud hanging over this World Cup is dampening players’ excitement.
“It’s extremely difficult every day for all of us as players,” the Tottenham defender said.
“We come here and we know these topics are going to be addressed and it is a difficult situation for us.
“Not just us, every team, every player is going to experience it throughout the whole tournament. It is disappointing.”
Wales hope for flying start
Wales start their campaign against the United States on Monday to end the longest wait – 64 years – of any nation between successive appearances at the finals.
Tottenham defender Ben Davies said: “We are really excited for the games to start. We know the first game is so important.
“We will need to relax as much as we can beforehand and raise our game.”
Five players – captain Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ethan Ampadu, Chris Mepham and Jonny Williams – did not train on Saturday due to workload management, while Swansea midfielder Joe Allen is the only current injury concern.
Benzema blow for Les Bleus
France’s hopes of successfully defending the trophy were dealt a setback after it was confirmed Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema had suffered a thigh injury which rules him out of the tournament.
The Real Madrid striker was honoured last month for his brilliant season in 2021-22, when he won a fifth Champions League title with the Spanish giants.
France, who could call up a replacement, take on Australia in their opening match on Tuesday before other Group D games against Denmark and Tunisia.
Benzema posted on Instagram: “In my life I never give up, but tonight I have to think about the team, like I always do, so the reason tells me to leave my place to someone who can help our team to make a great World Cup.”
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What’s on tomorrow?
Group A: Senegal v Netherlands (Al Thumama Stadium, Doha, 4pm, ITV1)Group B: England v Iran (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan, 1pm, BBC One); USA v Wales (Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, 7pm, ITV1)