AL KHOR, Qatar — The large swathes of empty seats in the second half summed up the Qatar soccer team's disappointing start to its first ever World Cup.
The night started with more than 67,000 mostly Qatari fans filling the cavernous Al Bayt Stadium, enjoying an opening ceremony that showcased the tiny Arab emirate to a global audience 12 years after winning the right to host soccer’s biggest event.
It ended with Qatar’s overmatched team trudging off the field, its unwanted place in soccer history secure and with many of its dismayed fans having long disappeared.
The controversy-laced tournament opened Sunday with the 2019 Asian Cup champions getting outplayed in a 2-0 loss to Ecuador, ensuring a host team lost its opening game for the first time at a World Cup.
“I would say we felt bad (for our supporters),” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said. “I hope in the next game they will be prouder.”
Ecuador captain Enner Valencia scored both of his team's goals in the first half of a one-sided game that wound up being a damage-limitation exercise for Qatar on one of the biggest nights in the nation’s history.
The match took place after a colorful 30-minute opening ceremony — fronted by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and attended by powerful dignitaries including Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — that promoted inclusivity and mankind living “under one tent.”
For many, that would jar with this World Cup being hosting by an emirate where homosexual acts are illegal, one that has come under strong criticism for how migrant workers have been treated building stadiums and tournament infrastructure since Qatar won the scandal-shrouded vote in 2010.
The yearslong scrutiny was never going to stop just because play on the field finally entered the narrative of a tournament dogged by human-rights controversies, yet a win for the host nation would have at least put a favorable light on Qatar, soccer-wise.
Instead, Qatar’s players, fresh from spending seven months together in a pre-tournament training camp under Sanchez, froze in front of an expectant crowd and a disciplined Ecuador team that might just pose a danger to more high-profile opponents over the next few weeks.
“This is just the start of the World Cup," said the 33-year-old Valencia, who has now scored Ecuador's last five goals at the World Cup, including three in 2014. “We have to keep dreaming.”
In what might go down as one of the worst displays by a host nation to open a tournament, Qatar had five shots in the match and none of them were on target. The team had only two touches inside the opposition penalty area.
Put simply, Ecuador was just too good for a team only playing at the World Cup because it is the host.
“I wouldn’t say we were naïve,” Sanchez said. “I would say this was about nervousness ... maybe we had too many doubts.”
Valencia thought he had scored in the third minute when he headed in from close range following an acrobatic cross from Felix Torres. After a video review of about two minutes, Ecuadorian celebrations were cut short when the goal was ruled out for a marginal offside.
Ecuador did take the lead, however, in the 16th minute when Valencia — running onto a through-ball — was tripped by Saad Alsheeb after rounding the goalkeeper, who was booked for the challenge. Valencia was nonchalant as he trotted up and converted the spot kick into the bottom corner.
The 33-year-old striker then added his second in the 33rd by heading in a right-wing cross from Angelo Preciado.
With Qatar’s passes often going astray and its defensive raggedness repeatedly exposed, Ecuador had no problem holding onto its lead as Sanchez stood helpless in his technical area and the home fans fell quiet.
Many didn't return for the second half. And heading into the final quarter of the game, thousands of seats were empty.
It marked a huge contrast to a few hours earlier.
In a party-like atmosphere, camels and Arabian horses lined the entrance to the stadium, a Bedouin tent-inspired venue located in the rather isolated surrounds of the rural town of Al Khor, north of Doha.
And the seven-act opening ceremony lived up to its billing, the highlight being when Freeman extended one yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador suffering from a rare spinal disorder in an image representing inclusion in a country facing international criticism over its human-rights record.
Looking on from the luxury seats were FIFA president Gianni Infantino alongside leaders from the Middle East and Africa. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, drew a thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from the suite, with Infantino and the monarch’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on either side of him.
“I welcome you and good luck to all,” the emir said in his only words spoken in English.
After this display, Qatar will need more than just luck to avoid joining South Africa as being the only host nation to fail to get out of the group stage at the World Cup.
“We have to forget about the pressure and be more competitive,” Sanchez said. “We can do it.”
The first half was winding down when a chant came from a large section of vocal, yellow-clad Ecuador fans: “We want beer.” It was a humorous intervention two days after Qatar decided to ban beer sales at the stadiums during the World Cup. It was a late change by the conservative Islamic nation where access to alcohol is strictly limited. Only alcohol-free Bud Zero was sold at the game.
In a concern for Ecuador, Valencia — the national team's top scorer — was substituted in the 77th minute and said after the game he had discomfort in his knee and ankle. “I hope I can be ready,” he said about the team's next game, against the Netherlands on Friday. Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro was under no illusions, though, saying: “Enner, he will play.”
Qatar will look to bounce back against Senegal, also on Friday.