Host Qatar, Ecuador eye positive start

Ranked a lowly 50th and 44th in the world respectively, Qatar and Ecuador will be hard-pressed to progress without winning at the Al Bayt Stadium, where the Middle East’s first World Cup will kick off. The more daunting prospects of African champion Senegal and perennial powerhouse the Netherlands await them next.
Qatar players go through the paces ahead of the opener
Qatar players go through the paces ahead of the opener

AL KHOR: World Cup debutant Qatar and South America’s lowest-qualifying nation Ecuador know that Sunday’s opener is their best chance for a win in Group A.

Ranked a lowly 50th and 44th in the world respectively, Qatar and Ecuador will be hard-pressed to progress without winning at the Al Bayt Stadium, where the Middle East’s first World Cup will kick off. The more daunting prospects of African champion Senegal and perennial powerhouse the Netherlands await them next.

Each, however, has reasons for quiet confidence. The Qatar squad had a long time to bond during the European camps, defeated Central American teams in recent friendlies and will draw self belief from its 2019 AFC Asian Cup title.

Though many outsiders expect Qatar to be drubbed in all three matches, home fans know that forwards Akram Afif and Almoez Ali have both talent and experience and pray that they can penetrate an Ecuador team that is struggling to score of late.

“Obviously, I am not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup. Competing at a good level against those three teams is our challenge,” said head coach Felix Sanchez. “Then, this is football and you never know what can happen.”

Ecuador is rightly the favourite in the tournament opener, having made its way to the fourth and last spot from a tough South American qualifying campaign. The team boasts some more recognisable names than the Qataris, including Premier League midfielder Moises Caicedo and veteran striker Enner Valencia.

“Believe in us! We are working as hard as we can to give joy to the whole nation,” said Valencia. Both teams will seek to ignore the razzmatazz of the opening ceremony and the pressure of a vast global audience, with way more focus than normal on what would otherwise be a less-than-mouthwatering match.

Even if it loses, Qatar will want to at least avoid humiliation and prove that it is worthy of a place, given the torrent of criticism over FIFA’s awarding of the tournament to a nation that had never qualified before. Meanwhile, Ecuador will be relieved just to be walking out after it faced possible expulsion over an accusation of fielding an ineligible player.

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