The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Host Qatar revels in World Cup opener, then suffers a deflating loss

Ecuador 2, Qatar 0

Ecuador beat Qatar to open World Cup play Sunday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

KHOR, Qatar — The 22nd World Cup hatched Sunday in a setting that once would have seemed far-fetched: in a small city amid the vast sands along the Persian Gulf coast 45 minutes north of Doha, at a stadium with two rows of camels posing dutifully beneath riders outside and after an opening ceremony that managed to include Morgan Freeman, Jung Kook and an adorable floating cartoon figure in a thawb.

That made it all a bit jarring when the first match suffered swaths of empty seats through a drowsy second half, as though large portions of the 67,372 had fled to concessions to make a run on the nonalcoholic beer.

In between the fanfare and the fan flight, host Qatar took a 2-0 manhandling from Ecuador and its masterful 33-year-old mainstay, Enner Valencia, who scored both goals, with the whole matter lopsided enough that the Ecuadoran goalkeeper seemed so untroubled that someone should have gotten him a chair, a little cafe table and a nonalcoholic beer.

Qatar became the first World Cup host to lose an opening match, and even as so many fans capitulated early, they told of an experience far better than nonalcoholic beer.

They had streamed into the stadium shortly before sunset for this World Cup deemed laughable even 12 years ago when the tiny country bid for it, and few seemed to have any illusions about the nation’s odds of beating Ecuador. Qatar’s national team was “much better than it used to be,” 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,” 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.

World Cup highlights: Ecuador beats Qatar to kick things off

After the match, Mohammed Hany al-Raeesi, 19, had trouble hiding his disappointment. “Probably the pressure overtook them,” he said of the Qatari team. But then he smiled. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Once in a lifetime.”

The pressure did seem to overtake, ransack and swarm Qatar. It grew possible to feel sorry even for a team that has built itself steadily into relevance, into an unbeaten 2019 Asian Cup title and an unbeaten tour of Asian qualifying, even though it qualified for this World Cup as host. Now it looked blinded by the lights, such that soon a visitor was telling of his particular dream.

“Since the draw took place [and put Ecuador opposite Qatar in Group A],” Valencia said, “I remember I was in a training camp with my club [Fenerbahce in Turkey], and I’ve dreamt about this opening match so many times.”

For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of clout

Having dreamed of the match, he had a dream of a match, his name quickly ratcheting up the wagering standings for the Golden Boot, which goes to the World Cup’s top scorer. “It’s just about moments,” he said, and did he ever hoard some moments already.

At a mere three minutes, he seemed to score on a point-blank header from teammate Pervis Estupiñán’s bicycle kick amid goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb’s burgeoning nightmare as he drifted well outside the goal. Then the Ecuadorans went into the corner for a madly giddy early pileup, but then the stadium went to VAR review, and then the referee relayed the decision: offside, apparently by a knee, a shin and a foot.

It lifted the audience, which then got set down again.

A beautiful through ball from Michael Estrada found its way to Valencia, streaming between two defenders as he headed again for the goal, the Qatari resistance more than lacking. Sheeb had little recourse but to reach and grab Valencia’s shin, leading to a penalty kick of an exquisite coldness, bunted into the right corner in the 16th minute as Sheeb sprawled the other way.

“Obviously this is not what we were hoping …” began Félix Sánchez, the Qatar manager from Spain who has been in the budding Qatar program since 2006, helming it since 2017.

Things worsened as Qatar’s passing looked aimless and its defense looked feckless. Moisés Caicedo, 21 and a pillar of the hopeful youth that dots the Ecuador squad, went off on a run through spacious open prairie, found the right side of the box, lost possession briefly, got it back, turned around and saw it go back to Ángelo Preciado. Preciado, from outside the top right corner, directed a gorgeous cross that led to Valencia’s gorgeous header.

Thirty-one minutes into the World Cup, team captain Valencia had a brace and Qatar had a deflation. Valencia’s all-time-leading Ecuador goal total of 35 had jumped to 37, and he had had quite some kinetic first half: one goal disallowed, two goals scored and one topple that left him down until the FIFA stretcher came (and then left) even as he returned after halftime and felt some “discomfort” in his knee and ankle.

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Later, Sánchez listed some of the follies all had seen: “We let them reach the final third very easily. … Too many turnovers from our side. … Great teams, they don’t give you time to think, and we have to be faster. … We didn’t manage to build up [possession].”

He credited Ecuador but said, “We did not play at our best level.”

“Maybe the responsibility, the nervousness, took the best of us,” Sánchez said. “We didn’t start well — terrible start, actually. … And this determined the rest of the game.”

The rest of the game was played.

Fewer noticed.

Sánchez said he didn’t notice that fewer noticed; he had been too busy.

Qatar would get near the goal with any hope only twice, once when ace scorer Almoez Ali missed on a point-blank header to close the first half and once when substitute Mohammed Muntari hit the roof on 86 minutes.

Otherwise, a World Cup had begun, an unusual one saddled with global discussion about Qatar’s human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers. All the excellencies and some heads of state and David Beckham turned up, and fireworks shot up outside the stadium.

Then they played soccer, a match that had seemed pivotal for both, with Qatar struggling against World Cup-bound teams (six straight losses) and Ecuador, which qualified fourth in South America, struggling to score. Soon enough, Sánchez was saying his team needs to “let go and be more competitive; we can do it” for coming matches against the Netherlands and Senegal, while Ecuador had stopped struggling to score.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.