What do we know about Ecuador?
If you’ve visited this mountainous country that straddles the Equator as it touches the Pacific coast of South America, you’ll recall they don’t have their own currency but use US dollars and that the capital Quito sits at an elevation of nearly 10,000 ft. A Lake District climate results. Each of the four seasons makes a visit every hour or so. Sometimes cloudy but hot with some breeze (therefore not too intense), later in the hour it becomes windy to the point of bitter cold. In between, it rains.
Accommodations are cheap and basic. If you’re on a budget, the hotel next door, pictured to the left and without any walls, is even cheaper and more basic.
The airfield used to be in the middle of the city, à la Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, but was surrounded by 6ft high tin shacks rather than 200 ft high walls of Kowloon concrete. A volcano or two on the approach made up the difference. In more recent times, the entry point has moved to Mariscal Sucre International, 11 km from the urban area and on the boring side of a particularly awkward bit of the Andes.
As mountain people, we would expect the Ecuadorians to be short and stocky, possibly with one leg longer than the other. With a high red blood cell count due to thin air at altitude, their players should start the 2022 World Cup opening match against Qatar with more ‘legs’ but may suffer in the Middle Eastern climate.
Friends tell me the Ecuadorians are taking the world Cup ‘very seriously’, are concerned their players may drop dead in the heat and that ‘the main coach person has picked a bad team’.
As for Quito, it is one long street in a valley. There are trolley buses and bendy buses. The architecture is Spanish colonial padded out with a billion tons of concrete and a trillion acres of corrugated tin. There is a railway station and railway lines, some of which pass through people’s houses.
- Sometimes Quito is closed off for religious processions and you’re not allowed to enter the city after a certain time of night. Eg yesterday (at the time of writing) when unwary foreigners, and a surprising number of locals, had to sleep in the fields.
- Gunfire is very common throughout the day and is blamed on Venezuelan immigrants made lazy by Communism.
As for sport, the altitude makes it difficult for the travelling English gentleman to climb the stairs to his (wall-less) room let alone kick a football about. The natives fare better and have their own league. A bit complicated, there doesn’t seem to be any promotion or relegation, rather two stages of home and away fixtures with a third round of matches from the winners of each stage playing off for the championship. Twenty-two teams compete. The present champions are Aucas who play at the Gonzalo Pozo Ripalda stadium in Quito. Their local derby rivals are Cumbaya and Catholic University both of whom play at the city’s impressive Olympic Stadium.
The national team qualified for the World Cup by the skin of their teeth when finishing seventh out of ten in the South American qualifying league in which all of the South American teams play each other home and away with the top seven qualifying. In the world of FIFA, South America begins at the Colombian border with Panama and the continent’s Guyana, Surinam and French Guiana play in the North and Central America and Caribbean qualifying competition.
Unlike their opponents, Ecuador have a World Cup pedigree. In 2002’s South Korea and Japan tournament, they finished bottom of Group G but beat Croatia 1-0 in the process. In 2006 in the group stage, they lost to Germany in Germany but beat Poland and Costa Rica (unlike Scotland ever did *snarf*) but were put out in the round of 16 by England after a 60th-minute strike from David Beckham.
In the French World Cup in 2014, they finished third (in a difficult group which included the hosts and Switzerland) after drawing with France and defeating Honduras.
Looking down the list of famous Ecuadorean footballers, I must confess I’ve never heard of any of them, not even Augustin Delgado who, apparently, played for Southampton. But we will give a special shout-out to Alberto Spencer, Ecuador’s George Best who earned 11 caps and scored 4 goals for his county between 1959-1963. Like the real George Best, Alberto never played in a World Cup, however, he did score 326 goals in domestic football for Penarol in the Uruguayan league.
As the good people of Quito gather in their front rooms or around street-side TV stalls, what do we know of their opponents, the opening ceremony and what will the actual 90 minutes bring?
What do we know about Qatar?
They are monied from their hydrocarbon wealth. However, the elite Al-Thani family are not directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed, owe their position to British-Ottoman politics of the 19th Century, did not become Saudi-style Wahhabis until the early 20th century and weren’t an independent country until 1971. Therefore, although you would expect them not to care less about what you think of them, if you look down on them for long enough and call them savages often enough then they come over all thin-skinned.
Qatar itself covers 4,000 square miles and is therefore about two-thirds the size of Yorkshire. A population of 2.6 million consists of 313,000 Qatari citizens and 2.3 million ex-pats. In 1950 the entire population was 25,000.
The Opening Ceremony
Scantily clad dancing girls not, rather Morgan Freeman, presumably starring as Allah this time rather than God, young men dancing and a chap in a head scarf and long gown singing. Blurry old cinema pictures showed boys playing footy in the desert in between stopping to pray. His Excellency Mohammed Bin Al Bin Al etc etc might have been in the old film as he was caught by the TV cameras laughing on the touchline while signing a football shirt.
His Excellency gave a speech in the local tongue. My Arabic’s a bit sketchy these days, plus there were no subtitles. I’m also a bit deaf and don’t see too well for lip reading but I think I caught بير قبالة which roughly translates as ‘beer’s off’. After which a march of the national stereotypes ended with the dance matting being rolled back to reveal a healthy-looking pitch afore a splendid and full stadium. Those Bangladeshis didn’t die in vain.
The crowd, enjoying a pleasant 24C evening at the Al Bayt Stadium 15kms from the capital Doha, was mainly of white-clad or maroon Qatar-shirted Arab men with occasional knots of other countries’ supporters in their own colours. An Argentinian lady who reminded one of 2-0 threatened to fall out of her top and trouble the religious dress police. A small number of accompanied local ladies were dotted about the stadium, all in black.
As for the opening match
The hosts got off to a bad start, conceding in the third minute to a goal that only a seven-man VAR team at Qatar VAR HQ could disallow. Eight minutes later, Qatari goalkeeper Al Sheeb caught Ecuador striker Valencia by the ankle on a one-on-one to concede a penalty. Valencia converted from the spot, cleverly teasing Al Sheeb to dive to the right while cooly stroking the ball to the left.
Ecuador’s lead doubled in the 31st minute when a good old-fashioned lob towards the penalty spot saw that man Valenica glance a header low to the near post, just to where the Qatari number one couldn’t reach it.
The second half threatened to be dire, as a poor Qatari team with little to offer faced an Ecuador side with no need to do anything other than kill time. The South Americans pressed all the same, to no effect, with only one of the host’s counterattacks worrying their opponent’s goalkeeper Hernán Galíndez. In the 85th minute, a very long ball from the back fell nicely for Muntari who took it on the volley at the 25-yard mark but put it just over the bar as a relieved Galíndez, temptingly off his line, looked on.
By now the stadium was near empty and one could reflect both on the wisdom of a World Cup of 32 teams, many of whom aren’t good enough, and starting the competition with this fixture. Prior to 2006, the first game always featured the holders. This year, that would be France who are in the same group as Denmark, a match which would have started the tournament with a much-anticipated event rather than a non-event.
Worse than that, Qatar’s game was supposed to be one of four matches played tomorrow but was moved (like the beer) upon the insistence of the Qataris, meaning a sub-standard standalone contest started the competition.
It can only get better, and it will. Puffins are advised to pick their matches carefully or even give the group stage a miss and start their viewing at the knockout phase.
© Always Worth Saying 2022