Hosts Qatar off to losing start after Enner Valencia double for Ecuador | World Cup 2022

For Qatar, this was a letdown 12 years in the making. The host nation has spent that time building the infrastructure of a World Cup shrouded in controversy and replete with a bitter taste that, whatever the next four weeks bring, is unlikely ever to be washed away. But when they kicked this tournament off the hope locally it was for a bravura show from the meticulously constructed football project that has run concurrently with the creation of a manicured, deeply unsettling fantasy sporting land from sand. Instead the national team flopped, left for dust by a stronger and cannier Ecuador unit who dealt the hardest of truths about how life at this level really looks.

The maneuvers honed by Félix Sánchez’s players over their time together were barely evident and it was doubly ignominious for Qatar that they became the first home side ever to lose an opening game. In truth no other outcome seemed likely after the moment, three minutes in, when Enner Valencia thought he had twisted the narrative with a close-range header. The goal was eventually disallowed bv VAR for the most borderline of offsides but Qatar’s backline, and especially their goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb, already looked ripe to be picked off.

That impression was quickly borne out when Valencia, who had been fouled by Al-Sheeb, converted a penalty. An expertly taken header after the half-hour removed the game’s remaining edge and, by the end, large swathes of this vast, textured tent-like structure, 45 minutes’ drive north of Doha, had all but emptied. The promised party had not materialized and on this evidence it would take a vastly improved showing against Senegal on Friday to give Qatar even a theoretical chance of progress from Group A.

At least the award and dispatching of Valencia’s spot-kick ascribed less importance to the controversy around his disallowed opener. The overrule by the video officials looked marginal at best and came after Al-Sheeb had flapped horribly under a deep free-kick, allowing a combination of Félix Torres and Michael Estrada to locate Valencia with the custodian stranded. There was widespread disbelief, along with jubilation among the maroon-clad mass of home supporters behind the goal, when it was chalked off for an offside. Estrada’s foot may have been marginally beyond Al-Sheeb, with only one defender back, when Torres headed on.

Perhaps the stars had aligned for Qatar., who would have had to repel dark murmurings about injustice had the call decided things. Nobody could accuse their country of being unable to produce an off-pitch show. Morgan Freeman had been reeled in to front the high-spec opening ceremony, intoning that “football unites nations in their love of the game”, but Ecuador they were a class apart in those opening moments. Qatar simply could not retain possession and it was not impossible to appreciate the nerves that must have come with stepping out for the widely trailed apex of their country’s footballing development.

They were behind soon enough when Al-Sheeb, a touch slow to react, came out to meet Valencia and clipped him on the shin. A penalty, a booking and no scope for suggestions of favouritism; Valencia oozed confidence in scoring and, at that point, Qatar looked vulnerable whenever a yellow wave swept their way.

Enner Valencia
Enner Valencia

There was visible frustration in the kick on Valencia for which Almoez Ali, chasing back from the centre-forward position, was cautioned. Valencia’s revenge was emphatic, finding space between two defenders and leaping thrillingly to plant Angelo Preciado’s first-time cross past Al-Sheeb after persistent work from Moisés Caicedo in midfield. The former West Ham and Everton player, now 33, has still got it.

Surely Qatar had more to offer. They are the Asian champions and, in what might have proved a useful exercise, did not disgrace themselves against Paraguay, Colombia or Argentina when guesting at the Copa América three years ago. It was clear they had frozen on this windy, surprisingly brisk evening; their football was neat enough but Ecuador were technically and physically superior.

Nonetheless Ali, who scored nine times in that continental win, glanced off target from in front of goal with the first half’s final action. He had been completely unmarked and perhaps a cleaner contact would have blissfully put Qatar at ease. It might have ignited the contest but, instead, it was virtually the final action of note.

Ecuador were able to cruise through the second period, occasionally squandering inviting positions on the counter. Romario Ibarra allowed Al-Sheeb redemption of sorts with a parried shot; at the other end Pedro Miguel, the Portuguese-born wing-back who joined Ali among five naturalized players in the Qatar XI, flung himself eagerly at a cross but headed wide. The substitute Mohammed Muntari went close with a late half-volley but all the opening night’s lessons had come from Ecuador.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *