Qatar get stage fright as hosts flop against Ecuador on their big opening night at World Cup 2022
In the build-up to this tournament, it became quite apparent that Qatar would much prefer if a little more of the focus was on the football. On this evidence, the host nation might want to re-think.
On the opening night of their World Cup, Felix Sanchez’s side were outclassed by Ecuador and Enner Valencia, and are already on course for an exit almost as swift as that made by the thousands who packed it in after 45 minutes here.
With their side two goals down at break, hoards of locals did not bother returning for the second half, the Qatari peoples’ brief and not especially passionate infatuation with the beautiful game apparently on the wane before this World Cup has even reached its originally intended start date.
For Ecuador, who were value for more than their 2-0 win, this was the smoothest and, save a few bruising challenges, gentlest of starts, bringing three points which will give them huge belief that they can qualify from a group that also includes the Netherlands and a Sadio Mane-less Senegal, to reach a first knockout game since 2006.
Lying 35km north of Doha, Al Bayt Stadium is as far as this World Cup will stray from the capital, a giant tent rising up out of a desert of sand and rubble a fitting starting point for a tournament that has in just about every sense been conjured up from nothing.
A half-hour opening ceremony attempted to touch all bases and reach all people, legendary American octogenarian Morgan Freeman delivering a sermon on unity before Jung Kook, one of umpteen members of Gen-Z, K-Pop phenomenon BTS, broadcast a similar message in rather jivier form.
Marcel Desailly presented the trophy, David Beckham – naturally – watched on and the mascots of every previous World Cup joined the party, the insinuation clear: that this most unique edition is just another tournament in the proud old FIFA lineage, “the best ever”, organisers continue to insist, but also not really any different from those that have come before.
In fairness, the sight of Gianni Infantino sat between Qatar’s Emir and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman offered a degree of continuity: four years ago in Russia, FIFA’s president had watched the opener alongside MBS and Vladimir Putin.
Every opening night needs a star and Saad Al Sheeb was hell-bent on being that.
Inside three minutes the Qatar goalie came hurtling out from stage left, needlessly flapping not once but twice at the first ball delivered into his penalty area. In the chaos, Felix Torres bicycle-kicked across a goalkeeper-less goal and Valencia nodded in, but the goal would not stand: Al Sheeb had wandered so far he had succeeded in just about catching Michael Estrada offside.
A guard of honour made up of camels and armed men in traditional Qatari dress on horseback had flanked the VVIP (Very Very Important Person) entrance to the ground and on 15 minutes the home backline produced a fine impression, Valencia suddenly bursting through the centre and into the box. Al Sheeb made to come, thought better of it, then couldn’t resist, clipping the forward’s ankles. By the time Valencia’s spot-kick rolled into the right corner, Al Sheeb was well on his way to the left.
The goalkeeper was at least spared fault for Ecuador’s second, a quite wonderful cross from Angelo Preciado met with a swivelling header of similar quality from Valencia.
Qatar may be World Cup debutants, but should have been no mugs, this side made up of largely the same crop of players that won the Asia Cup three years ago.
Perhaps understandably, given the occasion, they had done themselves little justice early on and those who stayed beyond the break, including a choreographed and, reportedly, imported squadron behind the far goal who sang, bounced and drummed to the last, witnessed a display of greater competence from the home side after the break.
Ecuador, though, had clearly taken foot off gas as their main source of attacking thrust, Valencia, hobbled around clearly injured but limping on in search of a World Cup hat-trick.
For Qatar, anything more than a trio of defeats and a limp yet emphatic exit, would now seem a success.