Entering the 2022 World Cup, past host nations all had one thing in common: they’d all managed to avoid defeat in their opening game. Even South Africa in 2010, widely considered the worst host in history, tied Mexico in the first match thanks to Siphiwe Tshabalala’s iconic tournament opener. With history on its side, as well as the confidence that comes with being the host, Qatar had to like its chances to at least draw Ecuador in Sunday’s opening match.
That hope lasted all of three minutes:
Or did it? After Enner Valencia appeared to give Ecuador the earliest 1-0 lead in World Cup opening match history, VAR took over and ruled out the goal thanks to a miniscule and confusing offside on the build-up.
No matter; Ecuador picked itself back up and initiated a first-half barrage against Qatar’s goal that perfectly encapsulated the gulf in talent between these two sides. Ecuador isn’t the best South American team in the tournament—it is probably the worst behind Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. It is still, however, an excellent and exciting young team, with a healthy dose of exciting players surrounding Valencia, its goal-scoring legend at the striker slot. Each of the Ecuador players got involved in the first half dominance: The defense merely held its shape and waited for Qatar to simply gift them the ball, while the midfield passed around their counterparts for long stretches of time before filtering the ball out wide, where Ecuador’s attackers flung crosses into Valencia’s head.
Just 12 minutes after the disallowed goal, Valencia found himself with the ball in the Qatari box again, and this time made the brilliant decision to stutter around goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb rather than shoot from a tight angle. Al Sheeb, who had a nightmare first half that also included getting obliterated by an Ecuador attacker on a header attempt, grasped for the ball and instead found Valencia’s leg for a penalty concession. Up stepped Valencia, and he scored one of the rudest penalty finishes I have ever seen:
The game was effectively over at 1-0. At no point in the first half did Qatar build anything resembling a coherent attack, while Ecuador just threw ball after ball upfield. Eventually, one of those balls, from Angelo Preciado, found Valencia at the back post, and the former West Ham man nodded it home with a rocket re-direction.
Following a decade and 31 minutes of preparation for this big moment on the world’s stage, the hosts were down 2-0 and it should have been much worse. Qatar didn’t look like it belonged with Ecuador, which bodes poorly for its chances against Senegal and, especially, the Netherlands. No hosts have ever failed to pick up at least one point, but if Qatar plays as it did on Sunday in its next two games, it might be lucky to even score a goal.
In fairness, Qatar did have an incredible chance in the second half, and looked more like a bad team rather than a historically putrid side. Part of that is that the team started building moves rather than panicking and clearing Ecuador attacks, and the other part is that Ecuador backed off the throttle, particularly after Valencia came off in the 77th minute. Still, despite a decent international record—Qatar won the 2019 Asian Cup—the hosts looked lost, and grasping for any positives here would be disingenuous. This was, both statistically and via the eye test, the worst opening performance by a host team in World Cup history, and it looks like it will be a grueling and embarrassing stint in the tournament for a country that put so much money and time (and human rights abuses) into hosting the damn thing in the first place.