A riveting ride to Qatar
After winning the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010, it quickly became clear that Qatar would have to pull a rabbit out of its hat to successfully stage football's showpiece event. The largest concern at the time was whether players could even perform in the searing summer as the Middle East prepared for its first World Cup.
It took half a decade to addresss those concerns. Finally, in February 2015, FIFA broke 92 years of tradition and moved the World Cup to winter for the first time, not wanting to deprive football lovers in the Middle East based solely on the weather.
That is the aspect that could define the World Cup, with the timing also meaning that it will be held in the middle of the European footballing season. Having players come to the World Cup with roughly 15 games under their belt should mean that they are fresher, which promises high-quality encounters compared to when they have already played 60-70. It also promises to turn the usually underappreciated January transfer window into a feeding frenzy.
But although that unprecedented change to winter set the tone for the hosts, they still had plenty to do. For starters, the Gulf state with a population of three million would have to calculate how to deal with an influx of approximately two million tourists.
Those computations ended up costing the nation $220 billion, making it the most expensive World Cup in history by a long shot. The next most expensive, Brazil 2014, had cost $15 billion. 20 years before that, the USA had staged the 1994 World Cup for just $500 million.
But Qatar also built roads, highways, the country's first rapid transit system and the world's largest electric bus depot alongside hotels, sporting facilities and the eight stadiums that will play host.
A total of 2.89 million tickets for the 64 matches had already been sold before the final batches were made available, with Qataris buying the most. Fans from the USA are second for tickets bought, followed by those from Saudi Arabia and England and Mexico.
Argentines and Brazilians will also feature in droves, and they will have the chance to see their heroes up close, with the nation's relatively tiny size meaning that 24 teams will be staying within 10km of Doha.
The Argentines have chosen the simplest of surroundings for their base camp, which nevertheless features five-star amenities alongside one of 32 dedicated training pitches and FIFA-provided on-site referees. Lionel Messi and his cohorts will stay at the Qatar University campus in Education City while Brazil have opted for the slightly more comfortable surroundings of The Westin Doha.
The Americans chose the most luxe setting, located in the heart of The Pearl, a man-made island home to a long list of designer hotels. Meanwhile, the Germans have chosen the seclusion and serenity of the country's largest wellness resort. Belgium will also be located far away from the action -- a sacrifice the team is making for a 3.5km private beach.
But some fans will perhaps have a hotel experience superior to any of the players, with the Al-Bayt Stadium offering five-star rooms, meaning fans can literally step out onto the balcony and cheer.
That is one among a host of unique architectural and design features specific to each stadium, but one thing they all have in common is the 'Advanced Cooling Technology', which will ensure the optimal temperature in the stadiums for players and fans.
A further piece of technological ingenuity lies inside the official match ball. Al Rihla, which is said to travel faster in-flight than any other ball in history, relays real-time data to facilitate the implementation of the semi-automated offside technology, the first time the technology will be used.
Another first will be the inclusion of women referees at the men's World Cup, with Yamashita Yoshimi, Salima Mukansanga and Stephanie Frappart set to make history.
Despite all that, there has appeared a darker cloud. Qatar's human rights record, an issue that has led to the nation making widespread reforms since being awarded the World Cup, has been constantly criticised -- even by footballers.
Others have pointed to larger trends, opining that labour exploitation of migrant workers is pervasive. "I could show you lots of pictures like that in lots of countries, even in some not far from [France]," France Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said in an interview when shown pictures of a labour camp.
While highlighting its reforms and praising the Australian players for speaking out, a spokesperson for Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy said: "No country is perfect, and every country -- hosts of major events or not -- has its challenges."
While football provides temporary relief from life's imperfections, World Cup glory can soothe spirits for four years, if not longer. Fans will be hoping that it is their team that triumphs and their stars that shine brightest.
But they will also be relishing every match featuring stars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thomas Mueller, Karim Benzema, Luis Suarez and Luka Modric, all possibly playing in the last World Cup of their careers.
After cruelly being denied in the 2014 World Cup final, will Lionel Messi lift the World Cup? Will Cristiano Ronaldo pull off the miracle of all miracles and spearhead his team to glory? Will it be Neymar who leads Brazil's exciting young team to glory? Or will the star-studded French retain the title? Which underdog will make a deep run?
These questions will be playing on the minds of all supporters, but only time will tell. The biggest question will be answered at the Lusail Stadium on December 18. All we can do till then is sit back and enjoy the ride.