x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Host Qatar's defeat in Asian Cup opener dampens spirits

The Qatari team had come into the Asian Cup with the added pressure of being hosts and doubts over their competence.

Qatar, in maroon, were comprehensively beaten in their Asian Cup opening game by Uzbekistan, ranked five places higher than the hosts. Karim Jaafar / AFP
Qatar, in maroon, were comprehensively beaten in their Asian Cup opening game by Uzbekistan, ranked five places higher than the hosts. Karim Jaafar / AFP

Before the start of the Asian Cup opener between Qatar and Uzbekistan, Bruno Metsu spoke about the pressures of being the host team.

For Qatar, there was the additional burden of being under the gaze of sceptics who questioned the country's ability to host a successful tournament. Many others have expressed doubts about the competence of the Qatari side and whether it deserved to be in the tournament.

"That is why the pressure on the team is really high," said Metsu, the Qatar manager. "We want to put on a display not just for Qatar, but the whole world. We want to leave a good impression of football in Qatar."

Their hopes of doing that seemed to crumble in the opening minutes of the match. Uzbekistan should have been leading by three goals inside the first quarter of an hour. They eventually finished the game 2-0 winners.

"I'm very sorry for Qatar people because this was a big celebration for them," said Vadim Abramov, the Uzbekistan coach.

A disappointed Metsu also tendered an apology to the home fans, nearly 40,000 of whom had packed the stands at the Khalifa Stadium.

"We wanted to play well for the people, for everybody, but we played a very bad game," the Frenchman said. "I'm sorry for the fans, for everybody, but sometimes it is very difficult to play well right from the start of a tournament, particularly with pressure on the players.

"I think the players wanted to give their best, but there was a lot of pressure on them and they forgot everything."

So was it merely the pressure of expectations that weighed down Qatar?

Did they freeze on the field after the emotional high of the opening ceremony?

Or were they just trying a bit too hard to meet the expectations of a big crowd - of the sort that the team must rarely see?

All of the above could be true. South Africa suffered from similar problems when they hosted the World Cup last year. The Bafana Bafana started with a draw against Mexico, crashed to a 3-0 defeat against Uruguay before bowing out of the tournament with a 2-1 win over a French team in disarray.

"Sometimes the opening game is very difficult," Metsu said. "It's not the first time a host team has lost their first game."

In fact, in 20 World Cups, the host team have never lost their opening match. In the Asian Cup, there have been a few instances: Hong Kong (1956), Thailand (1972), Qatar (1988), Lebanon (2000) and Malaysia (2007).

Six home sides have won the World Cup. In the Asian Cup, the figure is identical.

The problem with Qatar might be a lot simpler. Like the other hosts who lost their opening matches, Metsu's side is perhaps just not good enough. Among the 16 nations participating at the Asian Cup, only India (No 142) are ranked lower than Qatar (No 114) by Fifa.

Uzbekistan are ranked five places higher by Fifa, while the other two teams in the group, Kuwait (102) and China (87), are also better-placed. So Qatar will really be stretched to match their best show in an Asian Cup: a second-round appearance at 2000 Lebanon.

In the last three Gulf Cups, Qatar have progressed beyond the group stages just once, losing to hosts Oman in the 2009 semi-finals. In 21 official matches since the start of 2008, they have won just five and lost nine. With performances like that, Qatar will have a very difficult time getting their team into reasonable shape over the next 11 years.

Metsu, however, is confident of that happening. "I am sure the whole world will be surprised by Qatar 2022," he said. "We are focusing on building a very strong team that will fly Qatar's flag high in the 2022 World Cup. We have the time to prepare a really strong team for the World Cup."

As for the ongoing Asian Cup at home, many of the Qatari faithful have been pointing to Spain's stunning loss to Switzerland in their opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Spain eventually returned home from South Africa with the title.

Wishful thinking, some may suggest. But hope is all that Qatar has.

arizvi@thenational.ae