Enner Valencia spoils the party as Ecuador win World Cup opener against Qatar

Hosts' ambitions fall flat on historic night in Al Khor as South Americans ease to 2-0 victory

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The long, sometimes agonising, wait finally complete, Qatar’s quest for a statement worthy of the occasion extinguished not long after Morgan Freeman and the fireworks.

Ecuador and Enner Valencia were the great party poopers on Sunday night in Al Khor, the South Americans striking twice early on to claim the opening match of the first Fifa World Cup held in the Middle East.

For Qatar, they were history-makers in more than one instance, initially as the trailblazing Arab hosts of football’s marquee tournament, then as the only home team to lose on their big bow.

More than 4,000 days had passed since the small Gulf State was awarded the game’s grandest event, the road long and often rocky, and the magnitude of the moment told.

The burden of the build-up, protracted and pockmarked by controversy, seemed to have taken its toll. Qatar looked nervous at a packed and expectant Al Bayt Stadium, and understandably so: reigning Asian champions or not, this was their first World Cup appearance overall, and to have it on home soil only added to the pressure.

In truth, that was evident on Sunday before a ball was even kicked. Pedro Miguel, the Brazil-born right-back, was visibly moved to tears as the Qatar national anthem rang around the immaculate arena, succumbing to his emotions as the words were belted back from the stands.

The start certainly did not help settle the home side. After a spectacular opening ceremony in which Oscar winner Freeman took centre stage, Ecuador needed only three minutes to silence their surroundings.

Valencia reacted quickest to Angelo Preciado’s acrobatic volley when Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb strayed too far from his line, and the former West Ham United forward headed into the empty net.

However, his joy was short-lived. The Video Assistant Referee was checking the goal, the news confirming as much on the giant screen drawing whistles from the home support. Replays showed Michael Estrada’s lower leg was offside during the initial attack, and Ecuador’s lead was rescinded. Cue a cacophony of catcalls.

Yet Qatar were soon behind for real. On 15 minutes, Valencia raced through and, as he rounded Al Sheeb, the goalkeeper thrust out his arms and brought him down.

Valencia placed the ball on the spot, inhaled deep, sauntered forward and sent Al Sheeb the wrong way. This time, for Qatar, there would be no reprieve.

The goal took the Ecuador captain, 33, to four in the World Cup, making him his country’s lead scorer in the competition. Then, just after the hour, he climbed to five.

This time, Valencia met Preciado’s deep cross to brilliantly head down past Al Sheeb, the ball nestling inside the far post. The Ecuadorians all around Al Bayt Stadium, the majority gathered behind their team’s goal and the rest easy to spot in their vibrant yellow, erupted. Soon, they bounced almost in unison.

On the other side, to a man, Qatar looked lost. Akram Afif, the most recent Asian footballer of the year and supposedly his side’s standout, struggled to make any impact. Captain Hassan Al Haydos, with close to 170 caps for this national team, was poor both in possession and out.

If only he had helped reduce the deficit moments before half-time. Finding space on the right, Al Haydos crossed to Almoez Ali but the striker, positioned right in front of goal and without an opposition defender in sight, somehow glanced his header off target. Ali, remember, struck a record nine times as Qatar triumphed at the 2019 Asian Cup. He is his country's joint-highest all-time goalscorer.

In the second half, Qatar improved, yet Ecuador always seemed the more dangerous. At one point, Romario Ibarra forced a save from Al Sheeb. At the other end, Afif fired well over from range. With minutes remaining, Qatar substitute Mohammed Muntari sent a half-volley on to the roof of the net.

Qatar’s night in the spotlight had ended in disappointment. They must now move forward to Senegal on Friday and move on from their opening defeat. For sure, they must be better.

The African champions will most probably present an even greater test, but perhaps with Sunday's pomp and circumstance out of the way, Qatar can breathe and go again.

Updated: November 21, 2022, 4:44 AM