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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# fluffing their lines
Qatar freeze in front of the world and flop on their big opening night
The hosts were beaten 2-0 by Ecuador in the first game of the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar 0 

Ecuador 2 

THE MOST FRAUGHT and controversial World Cup stage of them all opened with a non-event. 

That irony will be of no consolation to the losers, as Qatar were on the receiving end of one of the most emphatic 2-0 defeats in World Cup history. The stats won’t depict a hammering but this was worse, the chasm between these teams so obvious that Ecuador declared with their second, first-half goal. 

spqatar-al-khor-2022-world-cup-group-a-opening-ceremony Xinhua News Agency / PA Images The Al-Bayt stadium opens the 2022 World Cup. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Qatar were terrible but they are not truly this bad: they are the reigning Asian champions but tonight they froze in front of the world. While they won’t even earn condescension as plucky but out-of-their-depth, it was difficult not to feel a little for them. This entire tournament has been staged to show Qatar to the world, and this match was its incarnate form. They would be forgiven for struggling to shoulder the weight of this absurdity.  

The final stretch of a 12-year journey to this World Cup came across slick, fresh tarmac, lining miles of empty, rubble-strewn desert with nothing on the horizon but giant, squat electricity pylons linked by slack cables. Perhaps Fifa looked at those grand, inert links in a chain leading to the Qatar World Cup and thought about the symbolism. Thirty miles from Doha the Al-Bayt stadium rises from the sand: shaped to mimic the tents of Qatar’s nomadic people, it sloping top carved out gentle arcs against the gloamy desert sky. There is nothing else around for miles and miles: the stadium resembled a palace built on a famine road. 

The42 at least got to admire the stadium from all angles as the driver of our media shuttle bus got lost, wriggling out of the gridlock to loop hopelessly around desert roads around the stadium until one of the Arabic-speaking passengers commandeered Google Maps and got us close enough to walk from the motorway. 

Fifa daubed the stadium with the slogan, ‘Football unites the world’, and Morgan Freeman – one of the faces of the USA’s failed bid to host this tournament – turned up to add some gravitas to the occasion. Fifa’s words rang hollow even in his elemental voice. Among the reasons Qatar wanted to host this tournament was to accentuate their borders to the rest of the world, to separate themselves from their powerful neighbours. The sight of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman sitting to Gianni Infantino’s left and two seats from the Qatari Emir at this grand opening ceremony accentuated their difficulty: $220 billion later and still they can’t quite stand apart with the world’s eyes watching. 

Another feature of the opening bash was the walk-on of all previous World Cup mascots, dancing on stage before 2022 Qatar assumed its curious place among all that went before. A giant version of La’eeb, a design inspired by the traditional Arab headdress worn by men, loomed above the pitch.

spqatar-al-khor-2022-world-cup-group-a-opening-ceremony Xinhua News Agency / PA Images The tournament mascot. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Qatar were hopelessly, cruelly out of their depth on it, monstered physically by a Ecuador side led by former West Ham striker Enner Valencia. They fell behind after only three minutes: goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb rushing out to flail lamely at a cross, with the ball pinballing across to Valencia who couldn’t miss from close range. Qatar, however, were handed a reprieve: a VAR offside not visible to the naked eye.

Offside calls are now assisted by Artificial Intelligence, meaning they no longer need to be visible to mere humans, though many of those humans watching on were baffled to the point of suspicion. They needed not be, as Ecuador soon had their second opening goal when Valencia was sent through on goal and tripped by the hapless Alsheeb, dusting himself off to roll his penalty to the goalkeeper’s left.  

Alsheeb needed treatment minutes later when, frazzled, he threw himself into an Ecuador player. He had the ignominy of being Qatar’s worst player, but here he had all the presence of a Budweiser tent. The Ecuador fans, meanwhile, sang ‘We want beer!’ 

Instead they got a second goal, Valencia brilliantly heading Angelo Preciado’s right-wing cross. That sapped the game’s little energy entirely, as Ecuador coasted.

spqatar-al-khor-2022-world-cup-group-a-qat-vs-ecu Xinhua News Agency / PA Images The Ecuador players celebrate their second goal. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

All of Qatar’s squad play in their domestic league, which was suspended in September to allow the squad to get a four-month head start on preparation. What cohesion and spirit that might have brought was tipped by their inability to step up to Ecuador’s level: physically, they could not compete. Qatar were crowned champions of Asia only three years ago, but the state project didn’t get its timing right, as it is now clear they peaked too soon. This summer’s 1-0 friendly loss to Linfield was not, in retrospect, an aberration.  

Qatar improved a little in the second half – Alsheeb, to his credit, did well to claw away Romario Ibarra’s curling shot – not that there were many left to see it. Vast swathes of empty seats appeared among the crowd after half-time, sprinkled across the stands like red Tetris blocks. The atmosphere was almost sterile, save for the efforts of the drum-beating, choreographed Qatari fans behind the goal. But even they had lost about a third of their ranks after half-time. 

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There was one, agonising moment in the dying moments, as substitute Mohamed Muntari ran behind the Ecuador defence and sent a fierce volley dipping just over the crossbar. 

But the game then fizzled drably out. 

As an opening note, it was a dud. 

Qatar: Alsheeb; Pedro’ Bassam, Khouki, Abdelkarim; Homam; Karim, Alhaydos (Muntari, 72′) (captain), A. Aziz; Almoez, Afif

Ecuador: Galindez; Preciado, Torres, Hincapie, Estupinan; Plata, Mendez, M. Caicedo (Franco, 90′), Ibarra (Sarimento, 68′); E. Valencia (Cifuentes, 77′), Estrada (Rodriguez, 90′)

Referee: D. Orsato (Italy)

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