This year's FIFA showpiece is certain to be very different from its predecessors - and for a wide variety of reasons
A FIFA World Cup unlike any which has come before it is just days away from its first ball being kicked when host nation Qatar takes on Ecuador in the opening game.
That match will get the ball rolling for a tournament which has been mired in controversy ever since the Gulf state was first awarded hosting rights back in December 2010.
The month-long festival of football, designed to entertain and enthrall, has instead threatened to be overshadowed by a variety of factors.
Among them are the allegations of abuses of migrant workers who built the infrastructure, as well as stern warnings from equality groups about Qatar's treatment of LGBT individuals.
The next few weeks will determine to what extent - if any - these concerns will be validated.
But amid the furrowed brows of the Western media, this edition of the World Cup also promises some unique storylines for football fans to tackle.
The unusual dates
Without question, a major factor which stands out when surveying the upcoming World Cup isn't just the setting, but rather the time of year in which it is taking place.
For the first time ever, a World Cup is happening outside of its usual summer timeline and has been transposed to November and December to avoid a situation where players would be forced to perform in the Qatari desert heat, which can reach above 45C (113F) during the summer months.
But transplanting a World Cup into the middle of the European football calendar has brought its own issues, chief of which is the mid-season pause that various leagues have been forced to elbow into their already packed schedules - with critics saying that the timetable places far too high a demand on players, some of whom already feature in 60+ games in a season.
The potential impact of a tournament which runs from November 20 to December 18 on prominent European domestic leagues will be a major point of discussion, long after the desert dust has settled on the Qatar World Cup.
The unique setting
Say what you will about Qatar's capability to handle an event of this magnitude (and its critics have done just that, and at great length), there is little denying that this World Cup is breaking new ground when it comes to football's continued global expansion.
A World Cup in, say, Spain or France, would no doubt be far more accommodating for the majority of nations who compete in it - but is there really any difference between a World Cup Final in Paris or Madrid, at least from the perspective of a television viewer?
Qatar will forever be the first Arab nation to host a World Cup, as well as (for now) the smallest country to be chosen to hold the world's largest sporting event.
The relative proximity of the various stadiums also presents a far more fan-friendly layout than some World Cups which have come before it - which should allow some fans the opportunity to attend multiple games in a single day.
The World Cup final will be played at the 80,000-seater Lusail Stadium just outside Doha.
David Ramos / Getty Images
The eight stadiums built to house the Qatar World Cup are all located within around 55km (35 miles) of each other, ensuring that this World Cup will have distinct and localized feel.
Contrast that with the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where the stadiums in Kaliningrad and Ekaterinburg, for example, were separated from one another by around 1,770 miles, and you have a World Cup which is far easier to navigate.
The 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, has some stadiums which are around 2,000 miles away from another.
Perhaps football fans might look back fondly at the relative ease of travel they experienced in Qatar.
The controversial build-up
This where the Qatar World Cup truly stands out from prior tournaments. In the 12 years which have followed since Qatar was awarded the tournament by a FIFA vote, organizers have been forced to bat away repeated accusations of the country's supposed ethical incapability of hosting.
Foreign or migrant workers make up a vast proportion of the country's population, with some estimates placing that figure north of 85 percent, and it is the treatment of these workers which has caused uproar among human rights groups.
A report from The Guardian published last year suggested that as many as 6,500 migrant workers may have perished in the 12 years of preparations before Sunday's kick-off, with those people principally said to have come from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
However, Qatar says that those figures - which were provided by the various countries' embassies in the country - relate to migrants as a whole, not just those who worked on the World Cup infrastructure, and would include people who had lived in Qatar for many years and may have died from a variety of reasons such as old age.
Qatari officials add that they have faced what they called an "unprecedented campaign" of criticism ahead of the tournament, which they argue is "racist rhetoric with the aim of offending the Qatari people and their national team." Qatar has also pointed to a strengthening of labor laws to protect workers as evidence of its improved reputation.
Elsewhere, concerns have been voiced about Qatar's laws against LGBT+ people, meaning a World Cup which has drawn fire from a vast array of equality campaigners across the globe. Again, Qatari officials have insisted all are welcome to the showpiece, but at the same time say they expect fans to "respect our culture."
Some of the allegations have moved from the lips of human rights watchdogs to the Instagram pages of numerous players and teams set to play in the World Cup.
Several footballers are poised to make some sort of effort to throw their support behind the issues surrounding the event, with the likes of England captain Harry Kane set to wear a rainbow-colored captain's armband during the tournament, in a potential act of defiance against FIFA.
Kane's Tottenham Hotspur teammate Hugo Lloris, who captains France, appears to have moved in the opposite direction however, saying at a recent press event that he wishes to respect the culture of the country he is visiting.
The USA national team, meanwhile, has opted to include rainbow colors on its team crest (just not on its jerseys, mind you) while Hummel, the kit provider for the Denmark national team, has designed a stark, black second kit for the team - supposedly as a mark of respect to workers who lost their lives in the past decade or more.
UK TV host Piers Morgan, a man rarely afraid of jumping headlong into controversial topics, called upon footballers to drop their tokenistic activism and wrote in a column in The Sun newspaper that the time to object has come and gone.
Morgan's views were echoed by FIFA, too, which addressed each of the 32 teams in a letter which told them to just "focus on the football" and not to allow the sport to "be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists."
The fan experience
It's inevitable that some of the fans heading to Qatar will be in for a culture shock, given the more familiar footballing hotbeds which have hosted the World Cup down the years.
Indeed, the Qatari authorities have been accused of attempting to kickstart the atmosphere there by paying residents to act as fans of the 32 countries in videos which have been seen whirling around on social media in recent days (Qatar denies this), while bespoke fan zones have also come under fire for supposedly being inadequate for the sheer demand that is expected.
It has been reported that upwards of 1 million football fans will travel to Qatar during the World Cup - a significant number when you consider than the Gulf state has a population of just under 3 million.
Qatar has been accused of deploying 'fake' fans - something it denies.
Martin Rickett / PA Images via Getty Images
Some fans (including the England team's WAGs, apparently) will take to staying on ships docked off the coast for a measure of extra freedom, as well as the benefits of potentially looser restrictions when it comes to alcohol and other liberties.
Speaking of a tipple, the sale of alcohol has been temporarily permitted throughout the duration of the tournament - but judging by the price lists which have been seen on social media, football fans might have to stretch their budget, with some prices for a single beer said to be in excess of $14.
The teams and their preparations
After all that, there also remains the small matter of the football itself. The unique mid-season format has led to speculation from some that this year's winner might not necessarily be the most star-studded team, but rather the unit which adapts best to the desert heat and to when the tournament is taking place.
Per the oddsmakers, South American rivals Brazil and Argentina are generally considered the two most likely teams to triumph - with Lionel Messi having one final opportunity to emulate Diego Maradona and lead his nation to World Cup glory.
Qatar will likely be the Last Dance at a World Cup for Lionel Messi.
Martin Dokoupil / Getty Images
Defending champions France, who beat Croatia in the last final in Moscow in 2018, have been hit with a rake of injuries ahead of the tournament and will be without their World Cup-winning midfield pairing of N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, while attacker Christopher Nkunku was ruled out this week. Nonetheless, Les Bleus are still tipped to be strong contenders.
It will also be the World Cup swansong of under-fire Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo, who will likely enjoy one final fling in the international spotlight before returning to domestic turmoil at Old Trafford.
Even Brazilian star Neymar, who is just 30 years old, is understood to be coming towards the end of his international career and it remains to be seen if he will be present when the tournament lands in North America in four years' time.
Whatever happens though, this World Cup is almost certain to be a particularly memorable one - even if we're not quite sure yet for which reasons exactly.