Not less than the hopes of an entire region is what Félix Sánchez has to shoulder these days, and if he does during the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador should have forgotten for an unlikely moment, a Kuwaiti questioner reminded him after the final whistle. The man wanted to know when the Arab world could finally celebrate the first goal and an improved host team. But Sánchez, before he could answer, really looked like someone who is heavy to carry. “Well, we know we can play better and we’ll try to do that in the next game,” said the coach.
Who the opening game, this 2-0 for Ecuador and the playful ease with which the South Americans achieved this result, suspects that it will probably remain an attempt. That Qatar on Friday (2:00 p.m. in FAZ live ticker for the World Cup, on ARD and on MagentaTV) meets Senegal and not the Dutch, who are rated even stronger, hardly plays a role. The hosts presented themselves too weakly to even have a chance in this tournament.
“We hardly managed to sell four balls in a row,” said Sánchez. Which was by no means exaggerated, rather euphemistic. Four? That’s about how many successful passes Qatar had throughout the first half. Or so it felt. “Ecuador deserved to win. We never got to our level,” said Sánchez.
At Qatar the nerves fail
Level, that’s what his players had repeatedly proven in the past months and years. 2019 Asian champions, before the World Cup there was a respectable draw against Chile (2-2), former Copa America winners. Plus the long preparation. This raised hopes and created certain claims. Unlike his 31 colleagues, Sánchez was able to dispose of his players almost freely, and weeks of training camps and courses were intended to prepare the team for the big event. When the time came, my nerves gave out before the eyes of the world.
“We were very nervous,” said Sánchez, which everyone had already seen. First and foremost goalkeeper Saad al-Sheeb. He wandered through his penalty area after just three minutes, missed the ball and was just lucky that the video assistant scored the following goal Ener Valencia canceled because of a previous offside position. There was nothing and nobody to help al-Sheeb when he brought Valencia down so clearly a little later that the referee had to award a penalty. The fouled converted safely and added another goal midway through the first half, this time with a header.
“Ecuador are a very strong team,” said Sánchez. The attempt to conceal one’s own weakness by artificially enlarging the opponent failed, however. Sure, Ecuador had played well, but even worse, Qatar had been bad. The defenders hardly brought a ball to the teammates during the build-up, often played fouls and were just as unsuccessful in their core competence, disrupting the opponent. Sánchez’ plan to create a manpower in midfield didn’t work out because the manpower he accepted on the flanks weighed more heavily. “We had a plan, but so did our opponents,” said Sánchez.
Football and its protagonists have tended to scientificize this game not only since the start of the World Cup, so the simplicity of Sánchez’ analysis may seem outdated, somehow obsolete. But that’s the way it was. The others’ plan just worked better because they had the better players. The guests used the simplest tool they could find in their kit that day.
Again and again crosses flew into Qatar’s penalty area from the outside or high balls came to the defence. The rebounds almost always landed on a yellow shirt from Ecuador. Long balls, duels, more hand drill than flex, but that was enough against a host who only had his first chance to score with the last action of the first half.
The attackers Akram Afif and Ali Almoez, who had been praised in advance, were not seen as often as was heard from the audience. Except for a group of enthusiasts who made the mood behind the goal. How much the emotional exuberance was based on natural joy or on financial support could not be clarified that evening. Unlike the outcome of the game.
After the break, Qatar looked a little better, but that was mainly due to the frugality of the Ecuadorians. Or their friendliness. One could assume that they really didn’t want to embarrass the host on his big day.