Focus on football casts Qatar in unflattering light in one-sided World Cup opener

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Fifty-five minutes into an hour-long monologue addressing Qatar 2022's various controversies on the eve of the first match of the World Cup, Gianni Infantino hoped he could focus instead on the football.

"Now, we can move to the World Cup," said the FIFA president optimistically.

"As soon as the ball rolls, people will engage in that," he promised, having responded to the "quite incredible" coverage of concerns around human rights issues, the treatment of migrant workers and the illegality of homosexuality in the host country.

The idea this discussion could sustainably distract from the spectacle of the action on the field "might be a little bit wrong", Infantino suggested, confident of delivering "the best World Cup in history".

Time will tell whether that is the case, but the early evidence suggests Qatar's role in the tournament will largely be restricted to that of entertaining their guests.

Playing at their first World Cup, Qatar – led by Catalan coach Felix Sanchez – had been preparing for the opener against Ecuador since June, able to discard club commitments and set their sights on arriving in style on the global stage.

Instead, Sunday's emotions bordered on embarrassment. Infantino's plea not to criticise Qatar certainly could not stretch to cover their hapless performance.

Sanchez insisted Qatar were "worthy" entrants, despite having never qualified for a finals. They were becoming the first side to make their World Cup debut as hosts since Italy in 1934.

Ecuador needed only three minutes to expose that as a generous assessment of the Asian champions, who appeared determined to fall short of captain Hassan Al Haydos' vow to "perform much better than [in] any game before".

Sanchez had acknowledged "many things" concerned him about Ecuador, specifically citing the physicality that quickly gave them control, but he might have been better served worrying about his own goalkeeper.

Saad Al Sheeb was spared by the narrowest of offside calls after twice flapping at a free-kick that led to Enner Valencia heading in from close range.

But it was a warning Al Sheeb and his team-mates appeared uninterested in heeding, as the keeper soon dived at Valencia's legs to concede a penalty Ecuador's record goalscorer was never going to pass up.

The static Qatar defence could hardly claim they had not been alerted to Valencia's threat when he needed no help from Al Sheeb in nodding in an excellent second from Angelo Preciado's cross just past the half-hour mark. A marginal offside decision this time went in Ecuador's favour, with Valencia now having scored their past five World Cup goals – a CONMEBOL record.

Almoez Ali – Qatar's own goalscoring talisman – lacked the same ruthless touch with the final action of the first half, heading wide of goal from inside the six-yard box to leave Sanchez with his head in his hands.

That was Qatar's first involvement in the Ecuador box, their "dream" – as Al Haydos described it – quickly becoming a nightmare.

Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, watched on from the stands alongside Infantino and Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, whose national team had kindly gifted 2018 hosts Russia a 5-0 win in the previous World Cup opener.

Ecuador were not in the same giving mood, maintaining their intensity into a second half that scarcely improved for those hoping to see Qatar be as "competitive" as Sanchez claimed they would be.

Failing to breach an Ecuador defence that came into this match off the back of six straight clean sheets was no great shame, but the ease with which La Tri – who netted only twice themselves across those games – cut through their Qatar counterparts was alarming.

Although the scoring stopped at two – a year and three days since they had last netted multiple goals in a match – Ecuador's youngest World Cup XI continued to look capable of advancing the ball up the pitch at will.

That Gustavo Alfaro's men did not feel the need to extend their lead said more for their opponents than anything else. An Al Sheeb shank in the final 10 minutes was met with loud jeers as a positive pre-match atmosphere threatened to turn nasty.

Debate around off-field matters had given Qatar's players and coaches time and space to conduct their preparations largely out of the spotlight, avoiding until Sunday the sort of pressure usually reserved for host outfits.

"Of course we have been a bit far away from the eyes of the media, but this made us focus even more on our work in our camp," said Al Haydos.

One can only imagine then how badly Qatar might have fared in a less forgiving environment.

Surely even Infantino will not be able to defend the home team from the negative analysis that will follow this miserable bow.