An hour north of Doha by a straight, featureless road and the vast Al Bayt stadium takes shape on the horizon. Hazy at first, through the heat and the desert sand swept up by the swirling wind.
Then its details take shape. An enormous Bedouin tent surrounded by slopes of freshly sprinkled lawns and twisting access roads. Like a very expensive and stylish big top in the desert. Roll up roll up to the strangest World Cup of your lives.
One where Marcel Desailly delivers the trophy on behalf of holders France in an ostentatious Louis Vuitton travel case because the beautiful game has sold its soul and it’s all about the look.
One where the president of football’s world governing body feels the need to lecture the west on morality on the eve of a tournament after asking everyone else to stick to the football.
One where the opening game featured Qatar, broadly accepted to have bribed its way to host nation status, against Ecuador, who played an ineligible player through most of the qualifying phase and had to fight off various legal claims to reach these finals.
Byron Castillo, the player in question, who was born in Colombia and has no Ecuadorian citizenship despite playing most of his career there, was then left out of the World Cup squad while FIFA’s sanction was to deduct three points from the next campaign.
They keep bending the rules to protect the image of the competition, blissfully unaware of the irony.
No surprise then when conspiracy theories swept the globe in a matter of seconds when the Italian officials intervened to rule out what appeared to have been perfectly good goal by Ecuador with only three minutes on the clock.
Saad Alsheeb, Qatar’s experienced goalkeeper, rushed from his line in a hasty attempt to punch clear a high free-kick. Twice, he flapped at the ball without making contact and Enner Valencia headed in an acrobatic, scissor-kick cross by Felix Torres.
There was no immediate hint of any offence. Ecuador celebrated and Qatar fell silent until FIFA’s new semi-automated offside technology kicked into action, using artificial intelligence, a sensor in the ball and a dozen cameras around the stadium to provide an accurate ‘kick-point’ and offside line for the VAR officials to study on their screens.
The new system did not deliver on its promise to keep those inside the stadium better informed as referee Daniele Orsato performed his rectangle mime and ruled no goal.
More than 67,000 were utterly nonplussed inside the Al Bayt, although those watching at home on television were equally bewildered until FIFA shared the animated still to show how Michael Estrada’s right leg had broken the ‘offside line’ as Saad was going through his comedy goalkeeping routine.
Doubt remained about whether the officials had interpreted the laws of the game correctly and reached the right decision. Perhaps it was a semi-accurate interpretation of the much-mangled offside rule.
Further questions about integrity would have to wait, as this contest shaping up to be such a mismatch that Ecuador were soon celebrating again, with 33-year-old Valencia running rings around Qatar’s shambolic defensive unit, who soon took to physical intimidation.
The former West Ham and Everton forward, these days playing his club football in Turkey for Fenerbahce, was felled by a heel-tap by Saad on another ill-judged excursion from his goal.
Valencia coolly sent the hapless ‘keeper the wrong way from the penalty spot and scored Ecuador’s second of the night with a header, finding space between static defenders with a change of pace before heading a right-wing cross by Angelo Preciado into the net.
It was almost half-time, by the time Qatar created anything on their big night. Almoez Ali appeared in space in the centre and headed wide from a cross by his captain Hassan Halhaydos.
It was a good chance and a bad miss and it might have been offside. Nobody looked too closely because it didn’t matter. Many of the supporters did not return for the second half and more of those who did teemed out as game fizzled out.
Ecuador, in complete control, turned their attention towards trying to avoid the late tackles and the atmosphere vanished until it resembled the moon as much as the desert.
By the time five minutes of stoppage time was played, the place was virtually empty but for the yellow blaze of Ecuador supporters and the small maroon slice of boisterous Qataris behind the other goal.
During these surreal closing stages, Qatar substitute Mohamed Muntari flashed a dipping shot narrowly over but there would be not even a consolation for them to cheer.
In their first World Cup, became the first hosts to lose the opening game. It is impossible to see them threatening to progress from a group also involving Holland and Senegal. At least the ball is finally rolling.
Relive the action with Sportsmail’s live blog for the World Cup opener between Qatar and Ecuador, including coverage of the opening ceremony beforehand.