USA ready to play, injuries abound

DOHA, Qatar – The first World Cup in the Middle East finally started on Sunday night with a flashy opening ceremony and a match between Qatar and Ecuador with no beer for sale in the stadium.

The beer ban imposed two days before the start of the tournament was the latest controversial snag for a global event already under scrutiny for Qatar’s human rights record and the Emirates’ frantic push to prepare the nation for the closest World Cup in history.

Thousands of attendees were turned away from Saturday night’s concert in the official fan zone due to overcrowding, as 1.2 million visitors are expected to begin arriving in the tiny nation on the Arabian Peninsula this week.

Qatar is home to 3 million people, most of them migrant workers, and has spent more than $200 billion on improvements across the energy-rich country that is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut or the island of Jamaica. The additions include seven new purpose-built venues, including the 60,000-seater Al Bayt Stadium which hosted the opening ceremony and the first match on Sunday.

Injuries

Two of the best players in the world were taken out of the tournament and injured before it even started.

Ballon d’Or winner France striker Karim Benzema is out after injuring his left hamstring during training on Saturday. Senegal forward Sadio Mane, who was second to Benzema in the voting for world player of the year, is out with a leg injury he picked up last week while playing for Bayern Munich.

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Previously, French midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante were ruled out, as was German striker Timo Werner. Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku and South Korea captain Son Heung-min arrived in Qatar with ongoing injuries.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar was a major financial boon for FIFA as the soccer governing body said it generated record revenue of $7.5 billion in the four years of commercial deals for this year’s tournament.

The cash draw is $1 billion more than revenue from the previous commercial cycle of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Additional money was contributed this year by local sponsorship deals, including Qatar Energy, which came on board as a top-level sponsor. Qatari bank QNB and telecommunications firm Ooredoo are also sponsors.

New to the sponsorship packages this year is crypto.com, the first new American sponsor in over a decade.

WHAT TO DO

The United States return to the World Cup after missing the 2018 tournament in Russia and open play on Monday against Gareth Bale’s led Great Britain.

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Bale plays for Los Angeles FC and helped them win the MLS Cup earlier this month.

The United States has one of the youngest teams in the 32-team tournament. Three of the Americans – Gio Reyna, Joe Scally and Yusuf Musah – were only 11 years old the last time the national team played a World Cup game.

DeAndre Yedlin, a 29-year-old defender, is the only holdover from the American team that was eliminated by Belgium in the second round eight years ago. Yedlin, Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta and Tim Ream are the only four players who were in the squad when they failed to qualify for Russia.

OTHER GAMES

The first full day of competition also includes a highly successful Group B match between England against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium, and the Netherlands against Senegal at the Al Thumama Stadium in Group A.

England are one of the favorites and they were semi-finalists in Russia four years ago, as well as runners-up at the European Championship last year. But the Three Lions arrived in Qatar without a win in their last six games, hoping the strong track record in recent major tournaments would turn the team around.

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LOVE ONLY

Eight of the 13 team captains from the European nations planned to wear “One Love” armbands to promote LGBTQ inclusion and rights in Qatar, where same-sex relationships are banned.

Among those who committed to the armbands was Bale and England striker Harry Kane.

But FIFA equipment rules prohibit such wristbands. The rules of the competition require that “the match team must wear official clothing and equipment provided by FIFA, including FIFA event badges specified and provided by FIFA.”

If the armbands are deemed inappropriate, players wearing them could be fined or shown yellow cards.

The England squad have expressed their willingness to be fined for wearing the armband, as has Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who replied “yes” when asked if he planned to continue with the silent protest.

FIFA launched its own captain’s armband in response, in collaboration with the United Nations, which will promote a different campaign for each round of the competition. The theme for the quarterfinals is “no discrimination.” There is no indication that LGBTQ rights will be part of any of the campaigns.

Read up on the 32 teams that will be playing in the World Cup.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports



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