(Daily Mail) Morgan Freeman kicked off the World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar today in front of the country’s royals and rows of empty seats following weeks of criticism over the country’s human rights record.
The actor, 85, who four years ago apologised following accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, today narrated the event’s opening segment titled ‘The Calling’, telling viewers ‘We all gather here in one big tribe’ as fans descended on Doha city centre for the imminent kick off of the world’s greatest football festival.
Qatar has faced a barrage of criticism over its treatment of foreign workers, LGBT rights and social restrictions, staking its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament. The country has denied accusations of abuse of workers and discrimination.
Empty seats could be seen within the Al Bayt Stadium during the ceremony, but after Ecuador vs Qatar kicked off at 7pm local time, the stadium appeared to have filled with fans.
In another controversy, Qatar banned the sale of beer in stadiums on Friday in a stunning about-face, meaning many of Doha’s bars and nightclubs – one of the rare places fans can get alcohol – were packed with crowds and had their tables fully booked on Sunday as the tournament kicked off.
Freeman spoke with 20-year-old Qatari entrepreneur and influencer Ghanim al Muftah – a FIFA World Cup Ambassador who was born with Caudal Regression Syndrome, a rare disorder which impairs the development of the lower spine – who said to the actor: ‘Come on over.’
When Freeman replied ‘I’m not sure, Am I welcome?’, al Muftah said: ‘We sent out the call because everyone is welcome. This is an invitation to the whole world.’
Freeman replied: ‘I remember, even after hearing the call, instead of seeing another way, we dismissed it and demanded our own way. And now the world feels even more distant and divided. How can so many countries, languages and cultures come together, if only one way is accepted?’
His appearance comes four years after he was accused of sexual misconduct by eight women and issued an apology to ‘anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected’ by his behaviour, saying it was ‘never my intent’.
Sixteen people – eight witnesses and eight who claimed to be victims – had come forward to allege the actor engaged in ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘harassment’ as they worked alongside him.
Football fans have reacted with fury on social media at the actor’s appearance in the ceremony, with one calling it ‘disappointing’ and another saying: ‘When you have to act out a scene with Morgan Freeman ”welcoming the entire world” to your country for a soccer tournament, maybe you shouldn’t host the World Cup.’
In Britain, broadcasters chose not to show the ceremony, instead showing a pre-packaged report on Qatar’s questionable human rights record and the controversy surrounding the tournament – meaning fans missed out on much of the spectacle.