AL KHOR, Qatar — Qatar’s first World Cup game ended in dismay for an overwhelmed side and with a place in unwanted footballing history.
The controversial tournament opened on Sunday when Qatar were outplayed and embarrassed in a 2-0 defeat by Ecuador in front of 67,372 fans at Al Bayt Stadium.
In 92 years of football’s greatest event, a host team had never lost their opening game.
The inaugural World Cup in the Middle East is a chance for Qatar, a tiny Arab country jutting into the Persian Gulf, to showcase itself to the whole world. His football team, playing at this level for the first time due to the way the tournament was hosted, couldn’t live up to the moment as Ecuadorian captain Enner Valencia scored both goals in the first half.
The game came after a colorful 30-minute opening ceremony – hosted by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and joined by powerful dignitaries such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – that promoted inclusion and humanity’s life “under a tent”.
For many, that would be because this World Cup is being hosted by an emirate where homosexual acts are illegal, a country that has been heavily criticized for the way migrant workers have been treated in building stadiums and tournament infrastructure since Qatar won the scandalous vote in 2010 Has .
Years of scrutiny would never end just because play on the field was finally added to the narrative of a tournament beset by human rights controversies, but a win for the host country would at least have put Qatar in a positive light football-wise.
Instead, Qatar’s players, fresh from a seven-month joint pre-tournament training camp under Spanish coach Felix Sanchez, froze in front of an expectant crowd and a disciplined Ecuadorian team that could potentially pose a threat to higher-profile opponents in the coming weeks.
Valencia thought he had scored in the third minute when he headed in from close range following an acrobatic cross from Felix Torres. After a video review lasting about two minutes, the Ecuadorian celebrations were cut short when the goal was ruled out for what appeared to be a minor offside position.
However, Ecuador took the lead in the 16th minute when Valencia was brought down by Saad Alsheeb after circling the keeper who had been cautioned for the tackle. Valencia was nonchalant as he trotted up and converted the penalty into the bottom corner.
The 33-year-old forward added his second in the 33rd by heading in a right cross from Angelo Preciado.
With Qatar’s passes often going astray and their defensive weaknesses repeatedly exposed, Ecuador had no problem maintaining their lead while Sanchez stood helpless in his technical area and the home fans fell silent.
There were plenty of empty seats for a second half that was almost a damage control exercise for Qatar on one of the biggest nights in the country’s history.
Middle East and African leaders were present
Camels and Arabian horses lined the entrance to the stadium, a Bedouin tent-inspired venue in the more remote outskirts of the rural town of Al Khor north of Doha.
And the atmospheric seven-act opening ceremony lived up to its claim, with the climax being Freeman holding out a yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador who was suffering from a rare spinal condition, in an image that symbolized inclusion in a country has faced international criticism for its human rights record.
From the luxurious seats, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and leading figures from the Middle East and Africa watched on. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, drew thunderous applause from the suite in a brief speech in Arabic, with Infantino and the monarch’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on either side of him.
“Welcome to you and wish everyone the best of luck,” said the Emir in his words, spoken only in English.
After that performance, Qatar will need more than luck to avoid reaching South Africa as the only host country to fail to advance through the group stage of the World Cup.
The first half drew to a close as a large section of the boisterous, yellow-clad Ecuador fans chanted, “We want beer.” It was a humorous intervention, two days after Qatar decided to end beer sales in stadiums during to ban the World Cup. It was a late change from the conservative Islamic nation, where access to alcohol is severely limited. Only non-alcoholic Bud Zero was sold at the game.
In one of the worst performances by a host nation to open a tournament, Qatar had five shots in play and none of them hit the target. The team only had two touches in the opponent’s penalty area.
Qatar will try to strike back against Senegal in Group A on Friday, while Ecuador meet the Netherlands on the same day.
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