World Cup debutants Qatar and South America’s lowest-qualifying nation Ecuador both know Sunday’s opener is their best chance for a win in Group A before facing much scarier rivals.
Ranked a lowly 50th and 44th in the world respectively, Qatar and Ecuador will be hard-pressed to progress as one of the top two in their group without winning at the Al Bayt Stadium, where the Middle East’s first World Cup kicks off at 4pm.The more daunting prospects of African champions Senegal and perennial powerhouse the Netherlands await them next.
Each, however, has reason for quiet confidence. Qatar had longer than most squads to bond during European camps, beat several Central American sides in recent friendlies, and draw self-belief from their 2019 Asian Cup title.
Though many outsiders expect Qatar to be soundly drubbed in all three games, home fans know forwards Akram Afif and Almoez Ali have both talent and experience and pray they can penetrate an Ecuador team themselves struggling to score of late.
“Obviously, I’m not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup, but competing at a good level against those three teams is our challenge,” said coach Felix Sanchez.
“Then this is football, and you never know what can happen.”
World Cup fixtures – November 20
- Ecuador vs Qatar – Group A, kick-off 4pm
Ecuador are rightly favourites on Sunday, having punched their way into the fourth and last spot from arguably the world’s toughest qualifying campaign. They boast some more recognisable names than the Qataris, including Premier League midfielder Moises Caicedo and veteran striker Enner Valencia.
“Believe in us! We’re working as hard as we can to give joy to the whole nation,” said Valencia.
Qatar are sweating over the fitness of Ahmed Alaaeldin, who came off in last week’s friendly with an unspecified injury. Almoez Ali – the joint-leading scorer for his country with 42 goals – is expected to partner Akram Afif up front if he is declared fit.
In defence, 130-cap international Abdelkarim Hassan could marshall a five-man backline while captain Hassan Al-Haydos will eye his 170th cap behind the strikers in place of Ali Asad.
Ecuador will select either Angelo Preciado or Robert Arboleda at right-back. Arboleda has only just recovered from an ankle fracture.
Moises Caicedo, Carlos Gruezo or Jeremy Sarmiento did not feature in the recent friendly against Iraq but the trio are all expected to start alongside striker Enner Valencia.
Ecuador aiming to seize World Cup chance after curious case of Castillo
Sky Sports’ Nick Wright:
Ecuador secured qualification to the 2022 World Cup back in March but it was not until November, less than two weeks before the start of the tournament, that their place in Qatar was confirmed.
Up until then, the country had been embroiled in a legal wrangle involving defender Byron Castillo, with South American rivals Chile and Peru, who missed out on qualification but hoped to gain a place at Ecuador’s expense, arguing he was ineligible to represent them.
Castillo featured in eight of Ecuador’s qualifying matches but the complaint stemmed from claims that he was born in Tumaco, Colombia, in 1995, and not the Ecuadorian city of General Villamill Playas in 1998, as stated in his official documents.
The case was referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who eventually ruled that Castillo was in fact eligible, even though he was born in Colombia and had used false information about his date and place of birth to obtain an Ecuadorian passport.
Ecuador were hit with a £88,000 fine for using false documents and will start the South American qualifying campaign for the 2026 World Cup with a three-point deduction, but they have arrived in Qatar hoping to seize their chance following the reprieve.
The irony of it all is that Castillo, who plays for Mexican club Leon, has not even been included in head coach Gustavo Alfaro’s 26-man squad for the tournament. Ecuador are keen to move on from the episode, starting in the opening game against hosts Qatar on Sunday. But Castillo’s shadow lingers over their participation.
Should they go further than expected, Chile and Peru might not be the only nations complaining.
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Both teams will seek to ignore the razzmatazz and the pressure of a vast global audience, with way more focus than normal on what would otherwise be a less-than-mouth-watering game for global spectators.
Even if they lose, Qatar will want to at least avoid humiliation and prove that they are worthy of a place, given the torrent of criticism over governing body FIFA’s awarding of the tournament to a nation that had never qualified before.
They will also be happy to be kicking a ball rather than dealing with the controversies over their nation’s human rights record that reached a crescendo as the tournament arrived.
Ecuador, too, will be relieved just to be walking out after they faced possible expulsion over an accusation of fielding an ineligible player.
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