It was always going to be a tall order for Qatar but the manner in which they crumbled against Ecuador would have disappointed the home fans, who were among the 67,372 in attendance at the Al Bayt Stadium for the FIFA World Cup opener Sunday.
The 0-2 defeat to Ecuador was a respectable score for Qatar, who looked second best throughout the match against the South Americans. Ecuador – 44th in the FIFA rankings are only six places above Qatar, but last night they showed they are miles ahead of the Asian Champions.
This was supposed to be Qatar’s easiest fixture in Group A, where they also face the Netherlands and Senegal, but Ecuador were too hot to handle for the World Cup debutants.
Ecuador captain Enner Valencia should have had a hat-trick on the night. His header in the third minute was ruled out for the tightest of offside by VAR, but the 33-year-old striker was not to be denied in the 16th minute and again found the net in the 31st minute to silence the partisan crowd.
As the Qatar players failed to impose themselves on the game, coach Felix Sanchez stared at the roof of the tent-shaped architecture marvel Al Bayt Stadium, wondering what he or his players could have done differently on the night. In reality, not much.
"Our nerves betrayed us, we started really badly," admitted a visibly disappointed Sanchez after the game. "We were unable to string together four passes in a row. Also many defensive gaps. The team was not balanced and that hurt us a lot. When you play against a team of this level... you pay for it," the Spaniard added.
Ecuador were physically stronger and technically superior than the home side. They barely gave a sniff to Qatar’s attacking pair Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, who were outmuscled by the Ecuador defence.
Gustavo Alfaro’s men had kept a clean sheet in each of their last six matches, last conceding a goal against Argentina back in March. They also held five-time World champions Brazil to draws in the last two outings, as they came through the tough South American qualifiers in fourth place to qualify for the World Cup.
Ecuador, though, had the most stressful build-up to the football showpiece, holding off legal battles to keep their place after Chile and Peru had lodged appeals with FIFA over the eligibility of Byron Castillo's involvement in qualifying games.
Alfaro took the tough decision of not bringing Castillo to Qatar to avoid the risk of sanctions. They also had to face a host nation in the opening game of a World Cup. Ecuador could not have asked for a tougher start to their campaign.
Qatar, on the contrary, have had the longest possible preparation by a team for a World Cup in history. Since their breakthrough Asian Cup triumph in 2019, Sanchez’s men have travelled to three continents, taking part in the 2019 Copa America, 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup and the European qualifiers earlier this year.
They have also sat out of the Qatar Stars League this season, spending six months in Europe for training and playing countless practice matches. The reason to train outside of Qatar was to make them play as a unit and improve their technical and mental aspects of the game.
But on the biggest stage of their nights, Qatar players looked frozen, clearly overawed by the historic occasion. This was a nervous and disjointed performance.
Their defeat Sunday was the first time a host nation has lost the opening match in the World Cup's 92-year history. Now they face the ignominy of becoming the second host country, after South Africa in 2010, to crash out of the World Cup in the group stage.
After a spectacular, but short opening ceremony, Valencia found the net with a lunging close-range header to silence the crowd. But the home fans were up on their feet again, as VAR disallowed the goal for a marginal side. It was a huge let off for Qatar goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, who looked uncomfortable guarding the goal, as did the defence.
Valencia sensed an opportunity and al-Sheeb did Ecuador a favour by catching the shin of their captain in the box resulting in a penalty.
Valencia took the spot kick and took two steps before putting the ball in the net, even as al-Sheeb had dived to his right early. The hosts’ night took for the worse as Valencia was to haunt them again.
The Fenerbahce forward was left unmarked as he lunged into Angelo Preciado's cross to head past al-Sheeb again.
"I dreamt so many times about winning this opening match. This was a dream that I managed to score and help my team get the three points," Valencia said Sunday.
"We managed to score a couple of quick goals which helped us to get control of the game and win the three points... We think we can go very far and perform well," the captain added.
Qatar had a chance to stay in the game in the last minute of added time off the first half, but Ali sent his header wide, even as many in the crowd called it a night early.
That was the only meaningful chance Qatar had as the game petered out in the second half. Qatar did well to not concede any more goals, while Ecuador played within themselves and still had a couple of decent scoring opportunities.
For Qatar, it’s African Champions Senegal up next on November 25 at the Al Thumama Stadium. Senegal are without injured Sadio Mane, but even in the absence of their star striker they pose a bigger challenge to Qatar than Ecuador.
Qatar and Ecuador players in action during their FIFA World Cup Group A match at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. PICTURE: Shaji Kayamkulam