First World Cup to be held in the Middle East, an Arab country, or a Muslim-majority nation. The first time it is being held during the northern hemisphere's winter, kicking off in November. The first to be based around a single city, more like an Olympics, than football's World Cup. The world is ready to descend on Doha.

On the field, a last chance for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the game's greatest ever. Kylian Mbappé back on the biggest stage of all, following his exploits as a teenager four years ago. Brazil bidding for a record-extending sixth title. The eternal battle between Europe and South America, that has tilted in recent editions decisively in the former's direction.

One of the most eagerly anticipated World Cups in memory - as much for off-the-field reasons as those on it - begins Sunday in Qatar.

Thirty-two teams, 64 matches, 29 days. The Greatest Show on Earth. You better believe it.

League play around the world has paused mid-season, causing much consternation among players and clubs, and now the world's focus is on Qatar, whose national team opens the tournament with a match against Ecuador.

Hosting the World Cup marks a pinnacle in Qatar's efforts to rise out of the shadow of its larger neighbours in the wider Middle East, where its politics and its upstart ambitions have brought both international attention and regional ire.

The road to the tournament - and Qatar's increased prominence on the global stage - has been fueled by the country becoming one of the top exporters of natural gas. That newfound wealth built the stadiums that fans will fill for the tournament, created the Arab world's most recognized news network, Al Jazeera, and enabled Doha's diplomatic outreach to the wider world.

But that rise has not been without intrigue. A palace coup in 1995 installed a more assertive ruler in the country, who used Qatar's wealth to back the Islamists who emerged stronger amid the 2011 Arab Spring protests - the same figures his fellow Gulf Arab leaders viewed as threats to their rule. A yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations that began in 2017 nearly sparked a war.

And while the overt tensions have eased in the region, Qatar likely hopes the World Cup will serve to boost its standing as it balances its relations abroad to hedge against any danger to the country in the future.

"They know there are these potential threats; they know they are very vulnerable," said Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations and Gulf Arab studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. "Anything they can do to have an international network of if not allies, at least a sympathetic element, they will."

Qatar, a little larger than Jamaica or just smaller than the U.S. state of Connecticut, is a peninsular nation that sticks out into the Persian Gulf like a thumb. It shares just a 60-kilometres (37-mile) border with Saudi Arabia, a nation 185 times larger, and sits just across the Gulf from Iran.

Through its sovereign wealth fund, Qatar owns London's famed Harrods department store, Paris Saint-Germain soccer club and billions of dollars in real estate in New York City. That wealth comes from its sales of liquified natural gas through an offshore field it shares with Iran, most of it going to Asian nations such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

That spigot of wealth began flowing in 1997, just after two major events that shook Qatar. The first, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War, saw Doha and other Gulf Arab nations realise the need for long-term American military presence as a hedge, said Kristian Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.

Qatar built its massive Al-Udeid Air Base, which is home to some 8,000 American troops and the forward headquarters of the U.S. military's Central Command today.

The second event that shook Qatar took place in 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power in a bloodless coup from his father who was in Switzerland. Sheikh Hamad later put down a 1996 coup attempt by his cousin.

Under Sheikh Hamad and flush with cash, Qatar created Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel that became known worldwide for airing statements from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The U.S. railed against the channel after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, though it provided the Arab world something beyond tepid state-controlled television for the first time.

The bid that stunned the planet

In December 2010, Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Just two weeks later, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in protest and ultimately died of his burns - lighting the fuse for what became the 2011 Arab Spring.

For Qatar, it marked a crucial moment. The country double-downed on its support of Islamists across the region, including Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood who would be elected president in Egypt after the fall of the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Doha poured money into Syrian groups opposing the rule of Bashar Assad - with some funding going to those that America later described as extremists, like the Islamic State group.

Qatar long has denied funding extremists, though it does maintain relations with the Palestinian militant group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, working as an interlocutor with Israel. But analysts say there was a recognition that things may have moved too fast.

"They realise they stuck out their necks too far too soon ... and they began to re-calibrate that," Nonneman said.

The Arab Spring soon chilled into a winter. A counterrevolution in Egypt supported by other Gulf Arab states saw the installation of military general turned President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013.

A little over a week earlier, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Sheikh Hamad's son, took over as ruler in Qatar in the ruling family's own acknowledgment that a generational change was needed.

Gulf Arab countries, however, remained angry. A 2014 dispute over Qatar's support of Islamists saw Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdraw their ambassadors - only to bring them back eight months later.

But in 2017 after then-President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, those three nations and Egypt began a yearslong boycott of Qatar, closing off air traffic and severing economic ties even as construction on the stadiums continued.

Things grew so tense that Kuwait's late ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who at the time mediated the dispute, suggested that "military action" at one point was a possibility, without elaborating.

The dispute ended as President Joe Biden stood poised to take office, though regional tensions remain. Still, Qatar has found itself hosting negotiations between American officials and the Taliban, as well as assisting the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia's war on Ukraine has seen European leaders come to Doha, hopeful for additional natural gas.

"They are at the centre of attention again," Ulrichsen said in an interview with the AP. "It gives them a seat at the table when there's decisions being taken."

Raising the stakes

The glaring spotlight of the World Cup - which requires Qatar to relax access to alcohol, create fun outlets for fans and comply with FIFA rules promoting tolerance and inclusion - raises the stakes.

In years past, the World Cup has turned host countries into the world's biggest party, with joyous crowds drinking heavily and celebrating together. When emotions run high, fans can be euphoric - or rude and violent.

This will shake up quiet Qatar, where such behaviour is deeply taboo and virtually unheard of. Doha is not known for its nightlife. Despite its rapid development over the years, its entertainment offerings remain slim and its public spaces limited.

Some foreign fans fret about how Qatar will handle hordes of drunken hooligans in the streets, given the nation's public decency laws and strict limits on the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

Swearing and making offensive gestures, dressing immodestly and kissing in public may normally lead to prosecution in Qatar. Anti-gay sentiment runs deep in society, like elsewhere in the Arab world. A senior security official has warned rainbow flags may be confiscated to protect fans from being attacked for promoting gay rights.

Fan anxiety is apparent in recent Reddit message boards: "How would the government know if someone is gay?" "How bad is it to wear short pants (Can I get arrested)?" "Is it true that people who say negative things about Qatar on social media get arrested?"

At the same time, conservative Qataris fret about how much their society can bend to accommodate World Cup guests. Doha plans to throw giant electronic music festivals. Authorities say they'll turn a blind eye to offences like public intoxication, intervening only in response to destruction of property and threats to public safety.

"I hope that the World Cup will not strip society of its religion, morals and customs," a 28-year-old Qatari man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told AP.

These tensions have already spilled over on occasions in the build up to the event. Last month, on the Instagram accounts of fashion models and superstars, the sheikhdom looked like one big, glittering party.

High-heeled designers descended on exhibition openings and fashion shows in downtown Doha. Celebrities, including a prominent gay rights campaigner, snapped selfies on a pulsing dance floor.

"As-salaam 'alykum Doha!" Dutch model Marpessa Hennink proclaimed on Instagram, using the traditional Muslim salutation.

The backlash was swift. Qataris went online to vent their anger about what they called a dangerous and depraved revelry, saying it threatened Qatar's traditional values ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Arabic hashtag, Stop the Destruction of Our Values, trended for days.

The episode underscored the tensions tearing at Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate that restricts alcohol, bans drugs and suppresses free speech, as it prepares to welcome the world - with warmth and generosity on one hand, and not just a little bit of apprehension and nerves on the other.

Political like never before

The atmosphere around this year's tournament is politically-charged like never before. French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that "sports should not be politicised," days after it was announced - to criticism - that he would attend the World Cup in Qatar if France reaches the semifinals.

Speaking in Bangkok, Macron said issues about Qatar's human rights record and the environment were "questions you have to ask yourself when you award the event."

Qatar won the hosting rights for this year's tournament in a FIFA vote in 2010. It defeated powerhouse nations like the United States and England, who were also in the running. The office of the then-French presi

The World Cup has sparked multiple controversies - from the living conditions of migrant workers to the impact on the environment of air-conditioned stadiums and the place of LGBTQ people, women and minorities.

Additional reporting from AP

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