Sunday marks the return of football’s quadrennial showpiece, making an unprecedented winter debut to mitigate the sweltering temperatures of Middle Eastern weather. Hosts Qatar have brought the sport’s blue-riband competition to the Persian Gulf for the first time, and will also be making their World Cup debut.
Having never previously qualified for the global competition, Qatar (and football) are taking a step into the unknown. If it’s terra incognita for the nation, then Felix Sanchez — head coach of Qatar — will be doing his best to downplay expectations and get his side focused on the immediate task at hand: Ecuador.
The South Americans return to the World Cup after missing out on a 2018 appearance. Only once have they made it out of the groups at a World Cup, reaching the 2006 knockouts, so head coach Gustavo Alfaro will be desperate to get off the mark on Sunday and spoil the opening-day celebrations of the host nation.
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Enner Valencia will be looking to pick up from where he left off in Ecuador’s last World Cup outing. The now Fenerbahce forward lit up Brazil, where only Lionel Messi, Neymar, Robin van Persie, Thomas Muller and James Rodriguez outscored him (three goals), which prompted attention from Europe. West Ham fended off competition to bring Valencia to the Premier League, such was his form in Brazil. He is his nation’s record World Cup scorer and will be hoping to have similar success this time around.
For Qatar, they have a number of centurions who will be looking to enhance their reputations on the global stage. Defenders Abdelkarim Hassan and Boualem Khoukhi have racked up 130 and 105 caps respectively, while Karim Boudiaf and Abdulaziz Hatem are also on triple digits. Skipper and forward Hassan Al-Haydos is Qatar’s record appearance-maker on 169, but 85-capped Almoez Ali is the nation’s record scorer (42 goals). He will be the biggest attacking threat for the hosts.
10 Dec 2018 – Qatar 4-3 Ecuador – International Friendly
These two nations have only met once previously, and it was an explosive seven-goal thriller. Enner Valencia bagged a brace, and also got sent off, while Almoez Ali (two), Hasan Al-Haydos and that man Almoez Ali scored the crucial goals that gave Qatar a 4-3 win. Fans will be hoping for a similar spectacle to really whet the tournament appetite.