World Cup opens with hosts Qatar facing Ecuador

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DOHA, Qatar, Nov 19, (AP): World Cup hosts Qatar open 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? Qatar coach Felix Sanchez says criticism of the World Cup host will not be allowed to destabilize his team. Sanchez, a Spaniard who led Qatar to triumph in the 2019 Asian Cup, said he and his players have had to shut out the issues that have surrounded the conservative Muslim nation in the run-up to the tournament.

“The best thing that can happen is to focus on football, keep calm and avoid the noise and rumours,” he 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.” Sanchez dismissed as “misinformation” an unsubstantiated rumour that attempts had been made to bribe Ecuador players ahead of the match. “For many, many years we’ve been training and preparing. We are together strong. No one will be able to destabilize us,” he said.

“We are motivated and happy to play in the World Cup tomorrow. We need to control our emotions and bring our A game and don’t take anything else into account.” Qatar, which are playing their first World Cup, is in Group A together with Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands. Qatar have never before appeared in a World Cup and face a major challenge just to emerge from Group A, which also includes Senegal and the Netherlands. South Africa in 2010 are 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 are only five places above them 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 their 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 favorites. 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 head to the World Cup on the back of doubts about whether they 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 their 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 their 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.

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