Doha - The week-long countdown to the World Cup in Qatar began on Monday as the world's leading footballers focused their attention on one of the most controversial tournaments in history. The first World Cup to be held in the Arab world will kick off on Sunday when the host nation face Ecuador.
It marks the culmination of Qatar's extraordinary campaign to first win the vote to land the tournament and then embark on a spending spree of tens of billions of dollars to build stadiums and infrastructure. Holding football's showpiece event in a desert state has necessitated an unprecedented reorganisation of the international football calendar, shifting the World Cup from its normal slot in the northern hemisphere summer to avoid the Gulf's scorching heat.
Domestic leagues will pause for six weeks to allow the tournament to take place, but preparation time is short. Three of the tournament's biggest names -- Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe -- emerged unscathed from Paris Saint-Germain's 5-0 victory against Auxerre in Ligue 1 on Sunday.
Mbappe, who will spearhead France's defence of their title in Qatar, signed off in style by scoring PSG's opening goal. England captain Harry Kane also scored to help Tottenham beat Leeds United on Saturday. While the players packed their bags joined up with their international teammates, the spotlight on Qatar intensified.
New stadiums cost more than $6.5 billion and a driverless metro system with a price tag of $36 billion serves five of the eight venues. Some estimates put total infrastructure spending over the past decade at $200 billion.
Organisers have predicted more than one million fans will travel to Qatar and they have responded to concerns about a lack of accommodation by using three cruise ships as floating hotels.
They are fully booked for the first two weeks of the tournament.
Organizers say that 2.9 million of the 3.1 million tickets have been sold and fans have been waiting outside the FIFA ticketing center hoping scarce tickets become available for top games.