AL THUMAMA, Qatar — After Friday’s defeat, Qatar are one game, and one more bad performance, away from winning the unwanted prize for worst World Cup host ever. To be fair, they are already statistically, anyway: other results in Group A mean they have suffered the earliest exit by a host nation in World Cup history.
Last Sunday’s 2-0 loss against Ecuador in the opening game of the tournament was bad, but one could understand there being nerves and pressure of being at home for their first appearance at this level. Yet Friday’s 3-1 defeat to Senegal at Al Thumama Stadium was equally as bad, and this time, there were no such excuses.
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Even though they deserved a penalty in the first half — when Ismaila Sarr clearly ran right through Akram Afif from behind — and missed a big chance in the second half, they defended too poorly, making far too many mistakes. Their expected goals was 0.32 for the first game (1.18 for Ecuador) and 0.88 for the second game (0.79 for Senegal), yet it never felt like an improvement.
Already, “Al-Annabi” (“the burgundy”) have beaten a record. No host had ever lost their opening two games in the competition. A third consecutive defeat, against the Netherlands on Tuesday at Al Bayt Stadium, would be catastrophic. In 2010, South Africa got a win, a draw and a defeat. It was the same for the USA in 1994 and for Spain in 1982, but both still qualified for the next round. Three losses from three games would be an embarrassment, not least because of all the off-field controversy both leading up to the start of the World Cup and unfolding over its first week.
Terrible displays from their team don’t help their cause; in fact, it’s more evidence for critics who believe the tournament should never have been awarded to the country.
Was their failure predictable? Is it fair? Since winning the bid in 2010, Qatar had 12 years to prepare for their World Cup and spared no expense on stadiums and amenities. The extent they went to to get their national team in the best form possible is almost unprecedented as well. With training camps abroad in Europe for months, the latest technology for training, stats and preparation, and even infrastructure such as Aspire and Aspetar, the ultra-modern training complex and hospital, at their disposal, they had everything to arrive in the best shape .
The draw could have been kinder, of course, and while these three games were always going to be tough, getting out of the group stage wasn’t impossible. Certainly, they should have done better than in the two defeats so far.
The most disappointing part of this for the host nation is that they know they’re capable of more. Let’s not forget that Qatar are the current Asian champions, having beaten Japan 3-1 in February 2019 in Abu Dhabi with a great performance. They will defend their title next year at home. The Asian Cup was their first big title, and manager Felix Sanchez, just 46 years old, was highlighting that his players were on the right path.
Sanchez arrived in Qatar in 2006, took over the national youth teams in 2013 and then, in July 2017, took charge of the men’s side. A disciple of Pep Guardiola, he has tried to implement a possession style of football in this team. They looked good in warm-up matches, beating Panama and Honduras while drawing with Chile and Slovenia. They finished third in the Arab Cup, narrowly losing to Algeria before beating Egypt on penalties in the third-place playoff. Even though these teams were without their Europe-based players, it was still significant.
However, everything crumbled in the World Cup. The leaders haven’t turned up so far. Akram Afif is Qatar’s best player, without a doubt. At 26, he now plays for Al Saad after a season at Gijon (2016-17), which made him the first Qatari ever to play in one of the big five European leagues. But he has gone missing. His xG was 0.02 in both games, and his xA (expected assist) was 0.02 against Ecuador and 0.16 against Senegal. Not enough.
The same can be said for Hassan al-Haydos, the captain. He’s been too invisible, and his teammates’ defensive weaknesses have been exploited too easily. Qatar don’t press or don’t know how to press, and they lack intensity when not in possession. Now that Qatar are out of their own World Cup, they can still salvage a bit of pride by getting a better result against the Dutch, though.
Before the opening game, Sanchez said he and his players had waited too long. “This is historical for us to play a World Cup. We sacrificed a lot of things, we have been so committed, we were abroad, far from our families for a long time. Now, we want to show who we are. We have seen, and so far, it is far too disappointing.”