Valencia's double seals Ecuador's World Cup opening act
The seasoned forward's goals handed hosts Qatar a 2-0 defeat in the opening Group A match
You couldn’t have asked for a more eventful start to this World Cup, where like the Olympics, everything is concentrated in one city. There was a goal disallowed by VAR in the fifth minute and a penalty in the 15th.
Denied once for being off-side by the goal-check system in place since 2018, Enner Valencia couldn’t be stopped the second time, converting the spot-kick with Zen-like calm to become Ecuador’s all-time highest scorer with four goals.
Valencia improved his record with a 31st minute header, blindsiding the home team’s defence that focussed on Michael Estrada leaping high. Estrada couldn’t connect, Valencia did and quite comfortably at this vertiginous stadium that looks like a tent in remembrance of the region’s nomadic people were Ecuador controlling the game.
Qatar lobbed a long ball from the off to the Ecuador penalty area but it was cleared. From then on, it was evident which team was playing its first World Cup and which its fourth (Ecuador have played in 2002, 2006 and 2014 finals). That Italian referee Daniele Orsato had to book goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb, attacker Ali Almoez and midfielder Karim Boudiaf by the 36th minute showed how difficult it was for Qatar to get a toe-hold on the game.
That could have changed in first-half added time but Ali couldn’t direct his header after Al Haydos delivered from the right.
“Qatar plays better than this,” said Farid Mondragon, member of the FIFA Technical Study Group for this World Cup. “They have been sucked in by the occasion,” said the former Colombia goalkeeper speaking at the concourse below the media tribune at half-time.
“Ecuador are an experienced and strong team who got the early advantage,” said Mondragon, referring to the penalty. “And grew into the game because of it.”
What Mondragon said was evident from the way Al Sheeb flailed arms while trying to clear a cross that looked innocuous. Felix Torres kept the ball alive with an acrobatic volley inside the area and then Valencia, left unmarked, headed home but the goal was disallowed because he was in an off-side position. Nerves were evident again when Valencia ran on goal and was brought down by the goalkeeper to concede the penalty.
His conversion, trotting up and almost waiting for Al Sheeb to commit to his right before slotting it to the goalkeeper’s left, encapsulated the difference between the teams. And it gave the band of yellow supporters in the lower tier voice. The chant, “Ecuador, Ecuador,” circulated around the amphitheatre cooled by that marvel of technology, outdoor air-conditioning, on a windy evening.
Exactly opposite to the band of travelling Ecuador fans was a group of fans in Qatar’s claret. Gamely, they tried to get the crowd behind the team but around the media tribune, men in bright white thobes were looking visibly disappointed by the time Valencia netted his second, burying the ball into the bottom corner.
After Moises Caicedo’s initial foray was blocked, he found Angelo Preciado on the right. Preciado whipped in an accurate cross which Estrada couldn’t meet and neither could Abdulaziz Hatem nor Bassam Al Rawi, one of the three central defenders deployed by Qatar’s Spanish coach Felix Sanchez. Abdelkarim Hassan did not spot Valencia who leapt and buried the ball into the bottom corner.
Ali’s close header to end the first half didn’t get Qatar to charge out of the blocks after the interval. They conceded possession cheaply and Pedro Miguel’s 62nd minute header was all they could produce by way of a riposte till in the 85th, when Mohammed Muntari volleyed over. Before either, Al Sheeb needed to pull off a solid save to deny Romario Ibarra.
No host country has ever lost the opening game of a World Cup finals and all since South Africa in 2010 have progressed to the knockout round. The last country to not have scored in the first game was Mexico in 1970. These could mean nothing if Qatar manage to up their game against Senegal on Friday and Holland on November 29, but it does look a tall ask.