Unfancied Qatar, Ecuador eye early points

Given the level of focus on the Qatari regime, their attitude toward human rights, immigrant workers, the LGBTQI community -- and beer -- the World Cup host's soccer team has slipped under the radar.

Qatar open the tournament against Ecuador on Sunday (Monday 3am AEDT), 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 attempting to raise their profile on the global stage and drive toward modernisation. But what about the team?

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 it was 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 coach Felix 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 try to maintain normality," Sanchez told Spanish sports newspaper Marca.

"We already know that there is that pressure, and we don't have to add to it. We have our routine. We try to isolate ourselves from the noise around us and focus on getting our best performance.

"It's difficult because then you go onto the pitch, you see 60,000 people. It's the first World Cup match and there's so much expectation that it's hard, but that experience will help them."

Ecuador will hope to spoil the party -- and have 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 they 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.