DOHA, Qatar — Given the level of focus on the Qatari regime, its attitudes toward human rights, immigrant workers, the LGBTQ community — and beer — the World Cup host’s soccer team has slipped under the radar.
Qatar opens the tournament against Ecuador on Sunday, but even the buildup to that match has been overshadowed by Friday’s announcement that the sale of beer will be banned inside the stadium grounds.
The World Cup is a source of immense national pride for Qatar in its attempt to raise its profile on the global stage and drive toward modernization. But what about the team?
“The best thing that can happen is to focus on football, keep calm and avoid the noise and rumors,” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said Saturday. “Obviously we don’t like it when people criticize our country. We managed to have great preparation, kept calm and that’s how we planned this.”
Qatar has never before appeared in a World Cup and faces a major challenge just to emerge from Group A, which also includes Senegal and the Netherlands. South Africa in 2010 is the only host nation to fail to get beyond the group stage, so to avoid sharing that distinction would be success in itself.
Sunday may be Qatar's best hope for a victory against an Ecuador team that is only five places above it at No. 44 in the FIFA rankings.
Qatar's preparation for this tournament has been going on for several years, including involvement in the 2019 Copa America and 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. But it was victory in the 2019 Asian Cup that provided evidence of the country's potential to provide a shock over the next few weeks.
That continental title was masterminded by Sanchez, who has been in the position since 2017 and before that was in charge of the under-19 team. The 46-year-old Spaniard learned his trade at Barcelona’s famed academy and his impact has been remarkable, with the Asian Cup success his standout moment.
But the World Cup is another level entirely.
“We are aware who we are, where we are coming from and who we are facing,” Sanchez said. "We will try to give our all, try to be competitive against such talented teams. It will be a great challenge for us.
“When the statistics add up it makes them the favorite. History told us that. Having said this, we consider ourselves to be competitive and worthy of being here.”
Ecuador will hope to spoil the party — and has been talked about as a potential surprise package. But the team heads to the World Cup on the back of doubts about whether it would even be allowed to compete after claims it fielded an ineligible player during qualifying.
Chile and Peru argued that defender Byron Castillo was actually Colombian and illegally played in qualifying matches. That claim was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Ecuador kept its place at the World Cup, but will be deducted three points before the start of qualifying for the 2026 competition because of the use of false information on Castillo’s birthday and birthplace in its proceedings to grant him a passport.
Castillo was then left out of coach Gustavo Alfaro’s 26-man squad for Qatar.
With so much focus away from the field for both teams, Sunday’s opener will bring the conversation back to soccer.