Double first in Qatar

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

The Gulf state is appearing in the World Cup for the first time but became the first hosts to lose an opening match, reports Alaa Abdel-Ghani

photos: AP   AFP
Saudi Arabia s Salem Al-Dawsari (c) celebrates after scoring his side s second goal during the World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar. The Saudis won 2-1 (photos: AP AFP)

 The run-up to Qatar’s World Cup has been so controversial that the country couldn’t wait until the matches began in earnest to redirect at least some of the world’s negative attention to the actual football.

Qatar should have been careful what it wished for.

No sooner had the opening ceremony on Sunday ended than the hosts were promptly blanked by Ecuador 2-0.

The side led by Felix Sanchez were so outclassed that they failed to get off a single shot on goal throughout the contest.

And they became the first host side in the tournament’s history to lose their opening game.

Qatar could have conceded their first World Cup goal when Enner Valencia headed in from close range, but an offside call by VAR rescued the hosts.

But ex-West Ham forward Valencia scored from the penalty spot and added a header for a 2-0 half-time lead which was never threatened.

It was arguably the worst opener in World Cup history, the game devoid of any meaningful football. Qatar had five shots in the match and none of them were on target. The team had only two touches inside the opposition penalty area.

Many of those who left their seats at half-time did not return, opting instead to beat the traffic, leaving the stadium half empty for most of the second period.

It was not a good look befitting of a World Cup opener.

Being an obviously average team, Ecuador’s performance was expected, but what was Qatar’s excuse? They had been preparing for this night at Al Bayt Stadium for 12 years, ever since they won the World Cup bid in 2010.

Around a third of the Qatari players are originally not from Qatar. They were granted citizenship to represent their country even though it is near impossible to become a naturalized Qatari. One would think that since the granting of a Qatari passport is rare, the players chosen for this mission and who will stand to earn a princely salary, would be of a reasonably high calibre. That is not the case.

After watching Qatar be totally dominated in this game, it is hard to believe they are the current Asian champions.

It also enjoys the backing of the internationally recognised Aspire Academy whose goal is to scout and help develop Qatari athletes.

However, the shock and awe expressed on the faces of the players as they entered the field for the pre-game warm-up said it all: the moment was too much for them. They were in way over their heads.

The Qataris were the first hosts since Uruguay at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 never to have appeared previously at the finals and it showed.

“A terrible start, this determines the rest of the match. We have to forget about the pressure,” Sanchez said.

Qatar will need to rebound quickly to avoid the ignominy of being just the second host country after South Africa in 2010 to fail to make it out of the group stage.

Qatar will look to bounce back against Senegal in Group A on Friday, on the same day Ecuador takes on Holland.

Holland beat Senegal on Monday 2-0, leaving the African and Asian champions wounded with no points in their Group A. Ecuador and Holland have three points each.

In a tournament as short as the World Cup, there is little room for slip ups.

Qatar had hoped that the start of the matches, and perhaps an opener in which they at least would have played admirably, would have offset a little of the huge controversies surrounding this World Cup, from the time of the bid to migrant workers, to the change to winter, alcohol and gay rights.

In retrospect, it seemed like wishful thinking.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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