EL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — A large number of empty seats in the second half brought the Qatari football team to a disappointing start to their first-ever match. World Cup.
The evening began with more than 67,000 fans, mostly from Qatar, filling the massive Al Bayt Stadium, enjoying the opening ceremony that introduced the tiny Arab Emirate to a global audience 12 years after winning the right to host football’s biggest event.
It ended with Qatar’s superior team walking off the field, its unwanted place in football history secured, and many of its uptight fans long gone.
The controversial tournament opened on Sunday with the 2019 AFC Asian Cup champions losing 2-0 to Ecuador, causing the host team to lose their first World Cup game for the first time.
“I would say we felt sorry for (our fans),” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said. “Hopefully next game they will be more proud.”
Ecuador captain Enner Valencia scored both of his team’s goals in the first half of a one-sided game that ended up as a damage-limiting exercise for Qatar on one of the biggest nights in the country’s history.
The match took place after colorful 30-minute opening ceremony — led by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and featuring influencers including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who have promoted inclusiveness and humanity living “under the same tent.”
Many may not like this, given that this World Cup is being held in an emirate where homosexual acts are illegal, which has come under fire for the way migrant workers who build stadiums and tournament infrastructure have been treated since Qatar won a shrouded voting scandal in 2010. .
Years of scrutiny never stopped just because a field game finally entered the narrative of a tournament plagued by human rights controversy, but a host nation victory would at least cast Qatar in a favorable light from a football standpoint.
Instead, the Qatari players, who have just spent seven months together in a pre-tournament training camp under Sanchez, are frozen in front of a waiting crowd and a disciplined Ecuador team that could pose a danger to higher-ranking opponents over the next few weeks. .
“This is just the start of the World Cup,” said Valencia, 33, who has scored Ecuador’s last five World Cup goals so far, including three in 2014. “We have to keep dreaming.”
Qatar landed five shots in the match and none of them hit the target. The team had only two touches in the opponent’s penalty area.
Simply put, Ecuador was too good for a team playing in the World Cup just because it is the host.
“I wouldn’t say we were naive,” Sanchez said. “I would say it was because of the nervousness…maybe we had too many doubts.”
Valencia thought he had scored in the third minute when he headed from close range after an acrobatic cross from Felix Torres. After a two-minute video review, the Ecuadorians’ celebration was cut short when a goal was ruled out for a minor offside.
However, Ecuador took the lead in the 16th minute when Valencia, stumbled upon a through ball, was knocked down by Saad Al-Sheeb after rounding the goalkeeper who had been cautioned for the challenge. Valencia casually ran up and converted the penalty into the bottom corner.
The 33-year-old striker then added his second in 33rd place with a cross from Angelo Preciado’s right flank.
With Qatar’s frequent fumbled passes and repeatedly exposed defensive imperfections, Ecuador had no problem maintaining the lead as Sanchez stood helpless in his technical area and the home supporters fell silent.
Many did not return for the second half. And approaching the last quarter of the game, thousands of seats were empty.
It was very different from what it was a few hours ago.
In a party-like atmosphere, camels and Arabian horses lined up at the entrance to the stadium, which looks like a Bedouin tent, located in the rather isolated outskirts of the rural town of Al Khor, north of Doha.
The seven-act opening ceremony paid off, with the highlight being Freeman’s yellow-gloved hand extended to a World Cup ambassador suffering from a rare spinal disorder in an image representing inclusion in a country under international criticism for its human quality. – recording rights.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, as well as leaders from the Middle East and Africa, watched from luxurious seats. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, received thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from his retinue, with Infantino and the monarch’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on either side of him.
“Greetings and good luck to everyone,” the emir said in his only words in English.
After this performance, Qatar will need more than just luck to avoid joining South Africa as the only host nation to fail to qualify from the World Cup group stage.
“We have to forget the pressure and be more competitive,” Sanchez said. “We can do it.”
The first half was drawing to a close when most of the yellow-clad Ecuadorian fans began to chant, “We want beer.” It was a playful intervention two days after Qatar decided to ban the sale of beer in stadiums during the World Cup. This was a late change from a conservative Islamic nation where access to alcohol is severely restricted. Only non-alcoholic Bud Zero was sold at the game.
Fearing for Ecuador, Valencia – the national team’s leading scorer – was substituted in the 77th minute and said he had discomfort in his knee and ankle after the game. “Hopefully I’ll be ready,” he said of the team’s next game against the Netherlands on Friday. However, Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro had no illusions, saying, “Enner, he will play.”
Qatar will try to bounce back against Senegal, also on Friday.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports.
Steve Douglas https://twitter.com/sdouglas80