That made it all a bit dull when the first leg suffered a series of empty seats in a sleepy second half, as if a large portion of the 67,372 had fled to the concessions for a soft-beer run.
Amidst fanfare and flying fans, hosts Qatar took a 2-0 drubbing from Ecuador and their masterful 33-year-old mainstay Enner Valencia scored both goals, with the whole affair so vague that the Ecuadorian goalkeeper looked so unfazed. that someone should have gotten him a chair, a small coffee table and a soft beer.
Qatar became the first World Cup hosts to lose an opening match, and although so many fans capitulated early, they pointed to a much better experience than non-alcoholic beer.
They had entered the stadium shortly before sunset for this World Cup that was considered a laughable even 12 years ago when the small country bid for it, and few seemed to have any illusions about the nation’s chances of defeating Ecuador. Qatar’s national team was “much better than it was,” was all Abdullah al-Fakhro, a 31-year-old electrical engineer, allowed. But for him and others, the team’s prospects were beside the point.
“It feels amazing,” al-Fakhro said, standing among the crowd, which included friends who attended together after imagining the moment for years and families with children born long after Qatar won the right to host the tournament. He was proud, he said: “We can show people our culture.”
“A dream come true,” Sara Althawadi said as she joined her sister to watch the match.
“We waited for 12 years,” said Mohammed Salah, 19, a law student who attended with his friend Abdulrahman Abdullah, also 19.
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After the match, Mohammed Hany Al-Raeesi, 19, had trouble hiding his disappointment. “Maybe the pressure got to them,” he said of the Qatari team. But then he smiled. “It was a great experience,” he said. “Once in a lifetime.”
The pressure seemed to overwhelm, overwhelm and overwhelm Qatar. It was also possible to feel bad for a team that has steadily built itself into prominence, to an unbeaten 2019 Asian Cup title and an unbeaten Asian qualifying tournament, despite qualifying for this World Cup as hosts. Now she seemed dazzled by the lights, so quickly a visitor was telling about his special dream.
“Since the draw was made [and put Ecuador opposite Qatar in Group A],” Valencia said, “I remember being in a training camp with my club [Fenerbahce in Turkey]and I have dreamed of this opening match many times.”
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Having dreamed of the match, he had a dream of a match, his name quickly moving up the betting charts for the Golden Boot, which goes to the World Cup’s top goalscorer. “It’s all about moments,” he said, and has he ever racked up some moments already.
In just three minutes, he appeared to score with a pointless header from teammate Pervis Estupiñán’s bicycle kick amid the growing nightmare of goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb as he headed well wide of goal. The Ecuadorians then went to the corner for a maddened early rally, but then the stadium went to VAR review and then the referee gave the decision: offside, apparently on a knee, a foot and a leg.
She raised the audience, who then sat back down.
A lovely ball from Michael Estrada found its way to Valencia, spreading between two defenders as he headed towards goal again, the Qatari resistance more than missing. Al Sheeb had little option but to reach out and grab Valencia’s leg, leading to a superbly cool free-kick that was fired into the right corner in the 16th minute as Al Sheeb stretched out the other end .
“Obviously this is not what we hoped for…” began Félix Sánchez, Qatar’s manager from Spain who has been with Qatar’s fledgling program since 2006, leading it since 2017.
Things got worse as Qatar’s passing looked aimless and his defense looked shaky. Moisés Caicedo, 21 years old and a pillar of promising youth scoring for Ecuador’s squad, went on a run across the wide open fields, found the right side of the box, lost possession briefly, picked it up, turned and saw him to turn back. to Angelo Preciado. Preciado, from outside the right corner, headed in a wonderful cross that led to Valencia’s wonderful header.
Thirty-one minutes into the World Cup, the captain of the Valencia team had a double and Qatar had a deflation. Valencia’s tally of 35 goals for Ecuador, which was the all-time leader, had risen to 37, and he had had a kinetic first half: a goal disallowed, two goals scored and a fall that left him him down until the FIFA stretcher arrived (and then left) even when he returned after the first half and felt a “trouble” in his knee and ankle.
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Later, Sánchez listed some of the folly that everyone had seen: “We let them get to the final third very easily. … Too many turnovers on our end. … Great teams, they don’t give you time to think and we have to be faster. … We failed to build [possession].”
He praised Ecuador but said: “We didn’t play at our best.”
“Maybe the responsibility, the nervousness, got the best of us,” Sánchez said. “We didn’t start well – terrible start, actually. … And that set up the rest of the game.”
The rest of the game was played.
Sánchez said he didn’t notice that less people noticed him; he had been very busy.
Qatar would come close to scoring with any hope only twice, once when goalscorer Almoez Ali missed a header to end the first half and once when substitute Mohammed Muntari hit the roof in the 86th minute.
Otherwise, a World Cup had begun, one unusually filled with global discussion about Qatar’s human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers. All the dignitaries and several heads of state and David Beckham came out and fireworks went off outside the stadium.
They then played football, a match that seemed crucial for both, with Qatar struggling against World Cup teams (six straight defeats) and Ecuador, who qualified fourth in South America, struggling to score. Soon, Sánchez was saying that his team needs to “let go and be more competitive; we can do it” for the upcoming games against the Netherlands and Senegal, while Ecuador had stopped struggling to score.