As the final whistle blew, one that ripped Qatari hearts like a poisoned arrow, the home players slumped onto the ground dejectedly. They dragged their defeated bodies and defeated minds, ruing the spilled chances at the end and their sloppiness at the start, as sanguine coach Felix Sanchez embraced them and applauded the spectators that had come in droves to support their nation’s greatest moment at the global stage.
The sweetest moment had turned into their sourest one too. After a smooth and splendid opening ceremony, the defeat was the anticlimax they had never wanted, or the one they feared. The 2-0 defeat broke their hearts and made their eyes well up in despair, but it was a blatant verdict of where they stand as a footballing nation. Ecuador outplayed, outthought and out-muscled, even without playing their best football, even though their game was error-strewn. Qatar froze, Ecuador pumped in heat and fire, spearheaded by the evergreen Enner Valencia, who put on a vintage show.
Enner was on fire! 🔥🇪🇨
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 20, 2022
The game, though, was won long before the final whistle was blown; the result was a foregone conclusion the moment Valencia and Renato Ibarra began to run the Qatari defence ragged with their immaculate precision and telepathic understanding in the early minutes of the game. Qatar had spent the last year drilling their team into a slick unit, even excluding them from league games. But here, on a windy evening at the magnificent Al Bayt Stadium, Ecuador were clearly the more coordinated side. Qatar were bland and flat, lacking both imagination and grit, as Ecuador repeatedly slit open their defence with fluid passes and bossed the midfield.
Not that Qatar gave up too early. As they staggered off the pitch at half time, with sunken shoulders and flickering eyes, captain Hassan Al Haydos stopped beside the stands near the tunnel to the change room, waved at his fans and gesticulated at the crowd to shout louder, throw their heart and soul deeper into the game. He then wrapped a consolatory arm around goalkeeper Saad Alsheeb, whose sloppy hack of Valencia resulted in the penalty, and Ecuador’s first goal.
Just minutes ago, he had nearly let another goal in, reacting late to the lobbed ball inside the box and then impetuously rushing to clear it away, but was too slow and ended up punching the air. In those fleeting seconds, Valencia had blazed the ball into the back of the net. When he returned after the break, Haydos pulled a couple of his teammates aside for an animated chat beside the touchline.
There was a sense of urgency, a whiff of a comeback, a scent of hope perhaps, a thrilling narrative waiting to unfold. But nothing significant emerged. Ecuador, as they had in the first half, ripped their defence apart, demonstrating the gulf of quality between the sides. All of Qatar’s players ply their trade in the local league, whereas most of Ecuador’s feature in the top European leagues. None perhaps as sparkling as Valencia. For long, Europe’s finest coveted him. He was long linked with Manchester United, but eventually ended up at West Ham before joining UANL and now spending the sunset of his career at Fenerbahce. He is 33 and almost a forgotten figure in Europe, lost some of his blinding pace, but has made up for it with ruthlessness in front of goal, a trait that blossomed late. It was his sloppy finishing that hindered his progress from a mid-table club to an elite one. Often, he was accused of showboating, of wielding an expansive style of game. At the sunset of his career, when no European powerhouse would knock on his doors for his signature, he has ripened into what he always wanted to be, a versatile forward.
Clinical in front of goal
His two goals, the penalty and header, perfectly illustrate his career. There was a hint of arrogant cheekiness. He waited until the moment Alsheeb dived and then caressed the ball into the bottom-right corner. He then grabbed the ball, kissed it and ran towards the raptured Ecuadorian fans. He almost pulled off his jersey but for Moises Caceido’s due intervention. Ecuador cannot afford a yellow card to their spearhead, if they are to nurse serious ambitions of progressing to the last 16, which they have managed just once in four appearances.
Valencia’s second symbolised another aspect of his game. The goal originated from a laser-guided pass from Caceido, It fell onto the feet of Angelo Preciado, who stroked a first-time cross to the far post. Valencia was nowhere in the frame, but spun past Bassam Hisham, who must have felt that Valencia was a phantom lurking between the shadows, leapt and stretched every sinewy of his neck to power a downward header past Alsheeb, again clueless and petrified.
It’s the polish that Valencia could not acquire in his prime. The goal that was eventually ruled out as off-side, the VAR making an instant presence, was from the poacher’s manual.
But as much as the goals, his movement off the ball confused Qatari defenders. He twisted and turned, nutmegged and dummied them, so much so that they eventually gave up on him. He combined delectably with Romario Ibarra, a more direct player and threatened to pile even more agony on Qatar. An embarrassment, though, was saved, even though the defeat would put in perspective that the hosts are a few notches away from putting up a stern test for better teams on the global stage. Qatar might be able hosts, but not so able adversaries on the field.