When the Qatar players and long-serving coach Felix Sanchez step on to the Al Bayt Stadium pitch for their World Cup opener against Ecuador tonight, there will be a few tears of joy streaming down their faces.
The players, Sanchez and their families have all dreamt of the night of November 20, 2022 – when the small nation with mighty ambitions takes the spotlight on the global stage.
Qatar has been subjected to a deluge of criticism since it won the rights to host the football’s showpiece event in 2010, but the players have stayed away from the unwanted distraction – keeping their eyes firmly on the ball. In the past decade Qatar football has taken a giant leap, with their emphatic maiden Asian Cup title in 2019 showing they are on the right track.
Tonight, years of planning will reach a full circle when they take on Ecuador – the South Americans with a ranking of 44, just six places above Qatar.
But as Sanchez rightly admitted yesterday, Ecuador will start as favourites at least on paper with Gustavo Alfaro’s men possessing a trio of players with Premier League experience. Their physicality too will put Qatar’s home-grown players under stern test.
But more than anything, Qatar team’s fortunes on the night will depend on how they tackle the expectations of the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium filled with celebrities, former stars and their loved ones and the billions watching via live broadcast. Months and days ahead of the biggest match of their lives, Al Annabi players have spoken about the childhood dream of playing at the World Cup. In a matter of hours, that will come true.
“It’s a very important day for us, it’s a historic moment,” said Sanchez yesterday, flanked by captain Hassan al-Haydos, under the glare of huge international media. “It’s a very happy day for us, for the players and the staff. It’s an extraordinary day... We have made a huge investment in this country. I hope we can enjoy football, our sport, and do our talking on the pitch. I hope all the countries in the world can come together to enjoy this,” the Spaniard added.
Sanchez, a former Barcelona youth coach, arrived in Qatar in 2006 and has since seen the rapid rise of the country. The 46-year-old too has risen from the ranks – from managing Aspire Academy teams to becoming the senior team coach in 2017. Just like his players, Sanchez too has dared to dream.
“After so many years, this is the end of a cycle – 16 years working in this country. I’ve been in a project, growing and following the steps of players in the national team. It’s a huge source of pride. I will try to enjoy the moment,” he said.
Ecuador could most likely be their least difficult opponent in Group A. The Maroon also face African champions Senegal, who even without Bayern Munich star Sadio Mane are lethal and then there is three-time World Cup runners-up the Netherlands, who have come to Qatar determined to prove a point under Louis van Gaal.
“We know it’s three (group) games, we know the potential of our opponents. They are national teams that, due to their history and individual talent, they’re ahead of us. On paper they should get the three points, maybe they count on winning all three points. But we’re here to show that we can be a competitive team. We will bring our A game,” Sanchez candidly admitted.
The Qatar coach, however, would have been pleased if the World Cup had arrived at least two winters ago. After the Asian Cup high in 2019, there has been a visible dip in performances of key players.
The squad has been richer by the experience of playing in the 2019 Copa America, 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup – where they reached the semi-finals – and the European qualifiers earlier this year. But there is concern that Qatar has passed their peak.
With an eye on the World Cup, the players – mainly consisting of domestic heavyweights Al Sadd and Al Duhail – were pulled out of the Qatar Stars League and trained in Europe since June. But the performances have failed to inspire much as the team now boast a worst defensive record among the 32 teams at the World Cup by a good margin.
“Obviously everything we’ve done in the past three years is to have a very competitive team in the World Cup. Every country’s situation is different and we’re a small country. All our players play in the local league, so we decided one of the ways to strengthen the national team was to... make massive sacrifices and spend long periods abroad. This shows the commitment of our players. All the time spent abroad training and competing is for tomorrow, so we can start the competition well,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez has injected some fresh blood into the squad, but will be hoping that 15 players from the Asian Cup squad will play a key role in avoiding the fate of South Africa, who remain the only host country in 2010 to be eliminated in the group stage.
The attacking pair of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif will have to play a crucial role for Qatar, who like to sit back and counter attack. Ecuador barely eked out a positive goal differential in South American qualifying – undoubtedly the toughest continent to qualify from.
Ecuador boast some more recognisable names than the Qataris, including Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo and veteran striker Enner Valencia but have struggled to find the net of late.
Ecuador coach Alfaro said Qatar will prove a tough opponents tonight, suggesting the hosts are better prepared having played together for several months.
“Qatar is Qatar and they have been preparing for this match for over 12 years,” said Alfaro. “They’ve been preparing for five, six months playing friendlies that means they are a very good organised and well prepared team,” the Argentine added.

Qatar vs Ecuador FACTBOX

When: Today, 7pm
Where: Al Bayt Stadium
Capacity: 60,000

Key stats and facts

World Cup hosts have never lost their opening game.
Qatar automatically qualified as hosts but the Gulf country also proved their worth by winning the Asian Cup in 2019.
Striker Almoez Ali was Qatar’s top scorer at the Asian Cup with nine goals but he has scored only once in 2022.
This is Ecuador’s fourth World Cup but they have qualified for the knockout stages only once in 2006, where they were eliminated in the last-16.
Ecuador’s top scorer in the CONMEBOL South American World Cup qualifiers was Michael Estrada (six goals).
Ecuador did not pick Byron Castillo for the World Cup after the country’s football federation decided not to include him
following Chile’s claim at the Court of Arbitration for Sport that he was ineligible to play in qualifying matches.

Previous meetings

Qatar and Ecuador have played each other three times, with both teams winning once and one game ending in a draw.
The last time they played each other was in October 2018 when Qatar beat Ecuador 4-3 in a friendly in Doha.