Hosts Qatar beaten in World Cup opener
Qatar suffered defeat against Ecuador in the first match of the FIFA 2022 World Cup, as two goals from Ecuadorian captain Enner Valencia condemned the Qataris to become the first hosts to lose the opening game of the tournament in its 92-year history.
After a controversial build-up which involved much of the Western media fixating on Qatar’s human rights record, the football finally began on Sunday at the 60,000-seater Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, just to the north of Doha.
Qatar almost got off to the worst possible start after just three minutes when they failed to clear their lines from a free-kick, allowing Ecuador captain Valencia to head in from close range.
But the goal was ruled out for offside after intervention from VAR, triggering the first moment of World Cup controversy on the pitch – even if analysis shared by FIFA showed the decision was correct because of a stray leg from Ecuador’s Michael Estrada.
Qatar were forced to soak up significant Ecuadorian pressure in the opening stages, ceding almost two-thirds of possession, and the South Americans did make the breakthrough in the 16th minute – again with Valencia at the heart of things.
The forward was brought down as he rounded hapless Qatari goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb, and Valencia picked himself up to coolly slot home the spot-kick for the first goal of the tournament.
The strike was a fourth World Cup goal for Valencia, adding to the three he scored at Brazil in 2014, and was the first time that the opening goal at a World Cup has come from the penalty spot.
Valencia did not have to wait long before adding to his tally, connecting with a well-placed header from a cross by Angelo Preciado to double Ecuador’s lead in the 31st minute.
Qatar’s Spanish manager Felix Sanchez looked on beleaguered from the sidelines as his team stared at unwanted World Cup history.
Qatar improved slightly as the first half wore on, managing a first shot and almost reducing the deficit in injury time when Almoez Ali headed wide with the goal at his mercy – although replays showed he would have been ruled offside.
Ecuador were largely content to play possession football at the start of the second half, but they drew a save from Al Sheeb in the Qatari goal when he pushed away an effort from Romario Ibarra.
There was a glimmer of attacking threat from Qatar after 62 minutes, when the Portuguese-born Pedro Miguel connected with a long ball into the Ecuador box, but his onwards header eluded teammate Ali.
Ecuador hero Valencia was replaced by Jhon Cifuente in the 76th minute after suffering an injury, but the Fenerbahce forward’s work was already done for his team.
Qatar substitute Mohammed Muntari spurned a golden late chance when played through with five minutes to spare, but lifted his effort over the Ecuador goal.
Ecuador cantered to a 2-0 victory in a game which will have caused significant concerns among the Qataris about just how much they can bring to their own party in footballing terms.
Before the match began, a colorful opening ceremony had featured cameos from Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and a performance from K-pop megastar Jung Kook, while the Russian World Cup mascot from four years ago, Zabivaka, was also part of the festivities.
Around 24 hours after making a staunch defense of Qatar’s right to host the tournament and criticizing Western “hypocrisy”, FIFA president Gianni Infantino gave a short speech before taking his seat to watch the action alongside Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
While it will be the 22nd edition of the World Cup, Qatar will very much be a tournament of firsts. Qatar is the first Arab nation to hold the showpiece, the smallest country, and the first to hold the World Cup outside of the northern hemisphere’s summer months.
The Qatari team are also making their first ever appearance at the FIFA showpiece, which this year is by far the most expensive World Cup ever. Qatar has spent a staggering $220 billion on preparation since being awarded hosting rights in 2010, according to some estimates – more than 15 times the Russian outlay to welcome the tournament four years ago.
Qatar and FIFA president Infantino will hope that at least some of the controversy surrounding the tournament fades into the background as the football gets underway, with 64 matches in total being held across eight venues, including the final at the 80,000-seater Lusail Stadium on December 18.
After their opening match performance, Qatar appear to have their work cut out if they are to go beyond the group stage. They next play Group A rivals Senegal on Friday, before taking on the Netherlands the following Tuesday. The Dutch are next up for Ecuador on Friday.