Qatar leave their World Cup party to the guests

    Perhaps the omens were there. Twelve years ago, South Africa was the first African country to host the World Cup and the team failed to advance from the group stages. Fast forward 12 years and Qatar, as the first Middle Eastern land to stage the football fest, have suffered the same ignominy.

    Qatar’s demise came after an opening day loss to Ecuador followed by a 3-1 defeat to Senegal on Friday afternoon.

    That concoction of misfortunes left the side’s chances dependent on the result between the Netherlands and Ecuador. The 1-1 stalemate at the Khalifa International Stadium in the evening was the kiss goodbye.

    “We showed what we are able to do,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez after the defeat at the Al Thumama Stadium.

    “We were competitive and beyond the result we played well. You need to know where we’re coming from. If you think that being eliminated is a failure, then that depends on expectations.”

    Indeed. Critics will savour the outlay of 200 billion dollars to pull in football’s movers and shakers and self-immolate in full sight.

    But was this World Cup ever really about the football?

    Ever since Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani deposed his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani in 1995, he has set out to remove Qatar from the shadow of its neighbours – especially Saudi Arabia.

    Security has been assured with the construction since 1996 of Al-Udeid which has become the largest overseas US air base and regional command centre as well as home to 10,000 US troops.

    The Al Jazeera TV news channel has also been established along with a sovereign wealth fund that has purchased baubles such as the Shard in London and the football club Paris Saint-Germain.

    Despite the criticism from activists and campaigners over the treatment of migrant labourers and attitudes towards the rights of the LGBTQ+ communities, the fact that Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas might help to explain high level reluctance to carp at a time of war between Russia and Ukraine.

    “Qatar is indispensable to the global economy,” said historian Tom Holland in the Rest is History podcast.

    “It’s supplies of liquified natural gas is essentially keeping the global economy ticking.

    “It is an astonishing state. It has played all of the various elements of late 20th and early 21st century politics very cleverly. If it had not done so it wouldn’t be in the position it is today.”

    Well, at least a geopolitical blinder has been played.

    Qatar’s final Group A game iagainst the Netherlands on 29 November will afford Sanchez and his charges at least a chance to play with the liberty lacking since the catastrophe against Ecuador on 20 November.

    The Netherlands can also match the Qatari freedom. Louis van Gaal’s band of stars will go into the match as Group A pacesetters with four points and aware that even a shock loss would, at worst, relegate them to second spot.

    Second-placed Ecuador – with four points – take on Senegal who have three points.

    “We need to win against Ecuador,” said Senegal boss Aliou Cisse. “The result against Qatar has given meaning to everything we’ve done and we will savour the result, even though we have to face the next game.”

    Where two out of three can advance to the knockout stages in Group A, all four sides in Group B have a chance to reach the last-16.

    England, with four points, are in the driving seat after a curiously unambitious performance in a 0-0 draw with the United States on Friday night at the Al Bayt Stadium.

    “I’m pleased with the application of the players,” said England boss Gareth Southgate.

    “I think it was a tough opponent who defended incredibly well.

    “We had to show another side of ourselves in terms of resilience without the ball, the recovery runs, defending our penalty area well, defending any number of corners or set plays that came into the area.

    “And to be a successful team in a tournament, you have to show those different faces.

    “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of noise about the performance but not many teams go through World Cups and get nine points in the group stages. We’re in a good position. We’ve still got a bit to do but we’ll also be in a position to win the group.”

    Much ado? The British tabloid papers ran banner headlines: “Yawn in the USA” – a play on the song Born in the USA by the American singer Bruce Springsteen.

    They also showed pictures of footballers’ partners yawning.

    And this is a team who as Southgate correctly asserts boasts a favourable position.

    Wales, England’s next opponents, are all but out. Playing at their first World Cup since 1958, they unravelled in the final 15 minutes against Iran.

    In the 86th minute, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy was sent off for a vicious challenge on Iran striker Mehdi Taremi.

    And the 10 men shipped two goals in stoppage time to lie bottom of the pool and needing to beat England handsomely to progress.

    Wales coach Rob Page virtually conceded the end of the adventure. “We’ve got to give our supporters something to cheer about,” he said of next Tuesday’s match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

    “They’ve shown massive commitment to come over and support us and that’s what disappoints me is … you don’t give them that kind of performance.”

    No such wailing emerged from the American camp following their draw against England.

    The US have two points from their two games and will advance provided they see off Iran on Tuesday night at the Al Thumama Stadium.

    “We should take a lot of confidence from how we went toe to toe with a very good opponent and even dominated in parts of the game,” said US striker Christian Pulisic after his man-of-the-match display.

    “It should give us a great feeling going into this last match which is a must-win.”

    Iran will also be revelling in the feel-good factor. The players received plaudits for not singing the national anthem just before their opening match against England.

    It was seen as a mark of solidarity with protests in Iran following the arrest in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for incorrectly wearing her head veil and subsequent death in custody.

    The unrest has led to an estimated 400 deaths, according to human rights groups.

    That backdrop rather eclipses the hinterland of the relations between the United States and Iran since November 1979 when a radical group of college students kidnapped 52 Americans at the US embassy in Tehran and demanded the return of the shah of Iran from the United States.

    On a playing field in Qatar, they will battle for a place in the last-16 at a tournament where elephants crowd along the touchlines.

    This content was originally published here.

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