DOHA: The preparation for Qatar finally ends on Sunday when the team begin their World Cup campaign.
The match against Ecuador in front of 60,000 fans is not only their first ever at the tournament, but also the biggest game in the country’s history. It is crucial to their chances of making it out of Group A, with African champions Senegal and then the Netherlands to come.
However, there is a team from whom Qatar can take inspiration. Back in 1994, Saudi Arabia made their debut and shocked the world by getting to the last 16, thanks to a 2-1 win over Morocco and a memorable victory against Belgium in Washington, courtesy of a classic goal from Saeed Al-Owairan that took his team to a last-16 clash with Sweden.
The Green Falcons lost their opening game against the Netherlands in 1994 and bounced back to win the next two to go through, but it is hard to see Qatar managing to do the same if they crash to defeat against Ecuador, a side widely seen as the weakest of the three opponents that the hosts will face.
A defeat would mean that four points, at least, would have to be taken from the following two games. That would be a huge task, even though South Africa are the only nation thus far to have fallen at the first hurdle while on home soil.
Ecuador should not hold any fears for Qatar. They are ranked 44th in the world, a mere six places higher than Qatar, while the host nation showed their talent and promise when they strolled to the 2019 Asian Cup, scoring 19 goals and conceding just one when defeating Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan along the way.
The preparations for the World Cup could not have been more exhaustive. Qatar played in the 2019 Copa America, drawing 2-2 with Paraguay and then losing to Colombia and Argentina. However, they impressed local observers, and did the same when reaching the semifinals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup where they narrowly lost to the US.
Appearances in friendlies have provided the knowledge needed for the showpiece event.
Qatar’s squad, entirely selected from domestic clubs, may be short of international experience, but coach Felix Sanchez has had plenty of time with his players.
The Qatar Stars League finished last month, but the national team have been training together since June. Sunday will see the fruits of those months.
The biggest sporting event on the planet will provide a new environment, though, and one that friendly internationals cannot hope to replicate.
In addition, there is the huge pressure of having the world watching the opening game. There can be no getting ready for that, and no one knows how the players will react.
Some around the team feel that the Netherlands may have provided a better opener, and that it would have been more advantageous to get a difficult game out of the way first. The side could have then faced Ecuador with first-match nerves out of their system.
However, that is not what will happen, and although defeat would not mean the end of the road for Qatar, it would leave them with a mountain to climb.
Nevertheless, a win and then a draw against Senegal, now without star player Sadio Mane, may be enough. And it could be that the Dutch win their first two games and rest and rotate players for the final group game, against Qatar.
Saudi lost their first game in 1994, but Al-Owairan saved the day. Qatar have the talented Akram Afif and Almoez Ali in attack and would love to have one of those stars do something equally spectacular.
It may depend on whether the hosts can rise to such a big occasion. If they manage to settle quickly, then an Arab repeat of Saudi Arabia’s debut heroics are possible. If not, then an early exit is on the cards.
It is now time for Qatar to turn over the exam paper and show what they can do.
Sanchez said: “We have made such a huge effort in this country. We have invested so much and are very motivated to take part. We have been waiting so long for this moment to arrive.”