x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A rousing start but result is a downer in Doha

Qatar lose 2-0 to Uzbekistan after fireworks and dancing launch the competition in style.

Young Qatar fans await the Asian Cup opening ceremony at Khalifa Stadium in Doha yesterday.
Young Qatar fans await the Asian Cup opening ceremony at Khalifa Stadium in Doha yesterday.

DOHA // The 2022 World Cup? That will have to take a back seat until later. It is "Game On" here and now in Qatar, as the Asian Cup billboards across the country proudly proclaim.

A spectacular opening ceremony last night must have surely blown away the distant clouds of the 2022 World Cup that seemed to overshadow the countdown to the Asian Cup.

Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president who has encountered plenty of flak for Qatar's winning World Cup bid, must have felt validated as he cast his eyes around the packed stands of the magnificent Khalifa Stadium. A boisterous crowd, more than 35,000 of whom had paid for their tickets, should have put to rest all doubts about fan participation.

And questions over their sporting culture? The traffic snarls leading to the Khalifa Stadium stretched into miles. That must be a sufficient testimony. Performers had lined those choked roads as well, beating on drums and entertaining those caught in the clog. The drivers, of course, added to the din, honking nonstop as they crawled to the stadium.

Many were still struck in their cars when, at 15 minutes past 6pm, the fireworks lit up the skies around the Khalifa Stadium.

The pyrotechnics were simply to announce the arrival of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. He entered the stadium to a standing ovation and stood as the Qatari national anthem followed.

Waving their flag proudly, hands on their chest, Qatari nationals were in an "I was there" moment. The spotlight then moved to an elderly man, standing in the middle of the ground with a young boy in tow.

He recounted the changes that he had witnessed through the years in Qatar, the development of the tiny Gulf state into a modern, big-stage player that will host the planet's greatest sports events, the Fifa World Cup, in 2022.

A kaleidoscopic laser and dance show followed; booming fireworks added to the spectacle. The adjacent Torch Tower, bellowing flames, made for a spectacular view.

As the stirring opening ceremony came to a close and the night breeze blew away the smoke-filled haze, the home fans used their ear-splitting vuvuzelas to announce themselves from the stands.

Those shrill sounds, however, came to a sudden pause seven minutes into the opening game as Uzbekistan launched three attacks in quick succession, the first of which should have finished at the back of the net. Alexander Geynrikh, to the relief of the Qatar supporters, shot into the left post.

The Qatar supporters were again holding their breath in the 18th minute as Jasur Khasanov danced alarmingly around the box, but then he pushed the ball tamely across the face of the goal. The post, in the 39th minute, frustrated the Qataris as well when Fabio Cesar's curling free-kick bounced off the upright.

The Uzbeks, however, seemed determined to break Qatari hearts and Odil Akhmedov did so two minutes short of the hour with a stunning, 30-yard rocket of a shot that flew past Qasem Burhan, the Qatar goalkeeper.

Server Djeparov doubled Qatar's pain in the 77th minute, making full use of a defensive blunder to boot home for 2-0.

The stands turned virtually silent from there. Dejected, the home fans started trooping out, back behind the wheels of their car, back into the traffic snarls, honking through it in frustration. The opening ceremony was a distant memory now.