Qatar opened the 2022 World Cup with a glittering light show and a sobering defeat. The selection of the highly controversial hosts lost 2-0 (0-2) in Ecuador at the Al-Bait Stadium on Sunday and conceded the first mood dampener right at the beginning of the finals.
Before the eyes of Qatar’s head of state Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Ecuador’s World Cup record scorer Enner Valencia (16th penalty kick and 31st minute) ensured the South Americans’ well-deserved victory in Group A. Qatar is the first host in World Cup history to lost an opening game.
In the arena north of Doha, shaped like a desert tent, the 67,372 spectators felt the World Cup mood, at least at the beginning. A group of fans in flashy red “Qatar” shirts didn’t let the goals conceded stop them from orchestrating their chants.
In the final phase of the game, however, there were increasing gaps in the stands. Thousands of people watched the emirate’s first World Cup game in the capital. A Fanfest, one of the few places where alcohol was allowed to be sold, had to be temporarily closed due to overcrowding.
The Al-Bait Stadium wasn’t even half full in the closing stages. Many of the 67,372 spectators had left the arena early, the images of half-empty ranks caused astonishment on the Internet and were a reason for renewed criticism of the controversial host.
“You have to say: It’s just not a football nation,” said ex-world champion Christoph Kramer as an expert on ZDF: “There’s no fire at all, nothing comes from the ranks and nothing from the field. It somehow suits the game that the stadium emptied relatively quickly – I probably would have left earlier too.”
Kramer compared the situation with that of the 2010 World Cup. “South Africa also had a difficult time as the World Cup host, but you somehow had the feeling that with the country behind you and with the esprit and fire of the people you could somehow develop a force can,” said the professional from Borussia Mönchengladbach: “You didn’t have that today.”
The multi-part, half-hour opening ceremony before kick-off was intended to bring together tradition and modernity in Qatar. The host, who was criticized for the human rights situation, among other things, also wanted to put the topic of inclusion in the foreground.
Hollywood star Morgan Freeman also got a big appearance. “The day we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived,” said Al Thani, the head of state. FIFA President Gianni Infantino appeared to be happy that the ball was finally rolling at his verbal starting signal: “Let the show begin!”
The jubilation about the start had hardly died down when the outsider conceded the first goal in the 3rd minute. However, the video referee saved Qatar from being behind by lightning because the Ecuadorian Michael Estrada had been flagged for offside with his right foot before Valencia’s header.
The goal, which was withdrawn by Italian referee Daniele Orsato, nevertheless had an impact on the internationally inexperienced Qataris – especially Saad Al-Sheeb. The goalkeeper was a constant source of uncertainty in the already unstable defense of the 2019 Asian champions and was responsible for the penalty kick before the 0-1 with a foul on goal scorer Valencia.
FIFA and Qatar had brought the game up a day so that the hosts could present themselves to the world public in a classic opening game. However, the World Cup debutant failed to prove that he could keep up on the world football stage.
The team, which the Spanish coach Felix Sanchez has been preparing for this tournament for many years, and which consists exclusively of professionals from the domestic league, acted helplessly at times. There was also little to see of the supposed star of the team, former Spain legionnaire Akram Afif. Sanchez followed the performance, which had been weak for a long time, mostly in consternation with his arms crossed on the sidelines.
When asked about the empty seats towards the end of the game, Sanchez said: “We felt supported and we hope that next time people will be prouder of us. I am sure that people will support us until the end of the tournament.” The atmosphere in the stadium was “great”. “We are sorry that we could not contribute to this great atmosphere and party. But we knew that could happen.”
The Ecuadorians were not only more playful on the ground and stronger in tackles, they also mostly emerged victorious from aerial duels – like the second goal by the conspicuous Valencia. The Fenerbahce Istanbul pro has now become his country’s all-time record goalscorer at the World Cup with five goals.
In central defence, Piero Hincapie from Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen had virtually no problems repelling the home side’s transparent attacks. In first-half injury time, however, the South Americans’ back line was unsorted when Almoez Ali, who was completely free, headed in Qatar’s first chance.
Even after the change of sides, the Qatari could think of little in the game, apart from the artful shot by substitute Mohammed Muntari (86th), although they now had more possession of the ball. Ecuador withdrew further and largely limited themselves to counterattacks. In the 76th minute, the battered double goalscorer Valencia had to be limped off and replaced. Sitting on the bench, he cooled his right knee afterwards.