A HOST team looking to prove its worth to the massive investment incurred in building it apart from splurging over US$200billion in staging the World Cup.
Just the cost of the state-of-the-art Aspire Academy, where Qatar’s national team has been raised some 45 minutes away from the Al Bayt Stadium where it opened the World Cup on Sunday, stands at around US$1billion.
With a nation in expectation, Qatar’s players were under pressure to deliver; an army of fans dressed in maroon — Qatar’s national colours — welcoming them on the pitch and chanting all along.
Qatar are the reigning Asian champions but their prime was in 2019 when they won the Asian Cup. Here in front of their fervent fans, they were looking to avoid being the first World Cup hosts to lose the opening match.
But against Ecuador — the South American team that had punched above its weight to qualify for this year’s World Cup, they suffered a meltdown. A 2-0 scoreline could’ve been worse had Ecuador not been denied a goal by the narrowest of margins in just the third minute.
It would’ve seen Ecuadorian captain Enner Valencia finish with a hat-trick — the Fenerbahce striker ending with two to his name, becoming his country’s leading goal-scorer at World Cups with five and the first to score twice in the opening game.
It was perhaps the weight of the occasion that frayed Qatar’s nerves. A lavish ceremony, celebrating the first World Cup in the Arab world, had been the prelude and Qatar players were so eager to get the ball rolling that they began the game even before the stadium countdown had finished.
But they were wasteful in possession and Ecuador began imposing themselves with their pressing. Qatar were being denied time and space and in the third minute, Ecuador silenced the home crowd.
Qatar goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb flapped at a free-kick that saw Felix Torres acrobatically ping the ball back in the box where Valencia was there to head it.
Ecuador fans erupted but it was the Qatari fans who soon found their voice when the goal was ruled out by VAR for offside.
Their joy, however, was short-lived. Just 12 minutes later, Sebas Mendez found Valencia darting into the box and the striker was impeded by Alsheeb.
The referee immediately pointed to the spot and Valencia, facing the vocal Qatari fans, kept his nerve to stroke the ball calmly past Alsheeb.
It sparked Qatar into action and they immediately went to the other end to no avail.
Qatar were finding it difficult to string passes together and in the 32nd, the Ecuadorians left them with a mountain to climb.
Moises Caicedo carried the ball across the pitch before laying it back for Angelo Preciado to whop in the cross from out wide for Valencia to jump above everyone and find the bottom corner.
Ecuador were cruising and perhaps it was then they decided that it was enough and decided not to add further misery on the host nation.
Qatar seemed to have given up, the stands began emptying and although they had some sniffs at goal — few and far between, Ecuador coasted through for the victory.
With matches to come against both the Netherlands and African champions Senegal in Group ‘A’, Qatar now need to regroup. An early exit looms and on the basis of this performance predictions from some former players including Tim Cahill, an ambassador for Qatar’s Supreme Committee that is delivering the World Cup, that Qatar will progress from the group have been thrown out the window.
The investment by the Qataris on their national team — let alone the cost of bringing the World Cup — was meant to build a team that would inspire the nation. The opening game, however, didn’t bring the result they wanted.
Ecuador had survived appeals by Peru and Chile over fielding an ineligible player to make the World Cup. This win will give them hope of going beyond the group stage.
When hosts go far at the World Cup, it keeps the nation interested. The atmosphere in Qatar had reached fever pitch only when the massive Fan Festival at Al Bidda Park opened on Saturday. Qatar have a lot to do to ensure they keeps the interest alive.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2022