Aliou Cisse paid tribute to the absent Sadio Mane after Senegal booked their World Cup last-16 spot with a 2-1 win over Ecuador on Tuesday.

The Lions of Teranga leapfrogged their opponents into second in Group A as goals from Ismaila Sarr and Kalidou Koulibaly sealed their progression to the knockout stage for the first time since 2002.

The result also saw Senegal become the first African nation to beat a South American side at the World Cup since Cameroon overcame Colombia in 1990, ending a 21-game winless run.

Senegal's talisman Mane was ruled out of Qatar 2022 after suffering a leg injury for Bayern Munich in the build-up to the tournament, but Cisse's thoughts quickly turned to the forward in the aftermath of his side's huge win. 

"I would like to dedicate this victory to a man who is doing extraordinary things for the country, who is unfortunately not here today. This man is called Sadio Mane," he said.

Senegal face the winner of Group B on Sunday, and Cisse says his side will be well-prepared for any opponent.

"We don't know who we're going to come up against in the round of 16 – it could be England, it could be Wales, Iran, USA, anyone," Cisse added.

"Then that will be a new stage for us. We know that we are moving to the knockout stage, which is completely different from what we are used to playing in these types of [group] matches.

"Everyone is a good team, the best teams in the world that are competing. Therefore, we need to be prepared to come up against any side.

"It is now a win or lose situation, there are no second chances – if you win, you go through, if you lose, you go home.

"So for the moment, we are just going to concentrate on resting and getting fit for the next game, it is simple as that."

Ecuador head coach Gustavo Alfaro lamented the fine margins that saw his side miss out on the last 16 and confirmed he needs some time to decide whether he will remain in the job.

"The margin of error was meagre and small details made the difference," he said after seeing Moises Caicedo's second-half equaliser followed by Koulibaly's winner just moments later.

"We made key mistakes in the game. The pain of this defeat does not need to overshadow the achievements of this side, and we hope the experience serves them well in the future."

Asked about his own position, the Argentine added: "I need time to know what I am going to do with my professional career."

Senegal progressed to the World Cup knockout stage at the expense of Ecuador after  Kalidou Koulibaly's strike  sealed a 2-1 win at the Khalifa International Stadium on Tuesday.

Aliou Cisse's side went into the game a point adrift of their opponents, but a deserved victory saw them secure second spot in Group A behind the Netherlands, who beat hosts Qatar in the group's other game.

Senegal were brightest from the outset and went ahead in the 44th minute when Watford winger Ismaila Sarr coolly slid home from the penalty spot after he had been fouled.

Moises Caicedo pulled Ecuador level midway through the second half, but Chelsea defender Koulibaly popped up in the 70 th  minute to restore Senegal's lead and send them into the last 16. 

Senegal squandered two glorious chances inside the opening 10 minutes, Idrissa Gueye and Boulaye Dia flashing efforts just wide from inside the penalty area.

Sarr went close with a whipped effort from distance midway through the first half, before Pathe Ciss looped a header onto the roof of the net.

Senegal's dominance was rewarded a minute before the interval when Sarr slotted home from the spot after he had been brought down in the area by Piero Hincapie.

Ecuador were much improved after the break and they drew level in the 67th minute when Caicedo tapped home at the back post after Felix Torres had flicked a corner on.

Their joy was short-lived, however, as Koulibaly booked Senegal's last-16 spot just three minutes later with a side-footed volley from six yards after a free-kick had been diverted into his path by an Ecuador defender. 

Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse is considering changes for his side's must-win World Cup Group A clash against Ecuador on Tuesday.

Having lost to the Netherlands in their opening match, a 3-1 victory over Qatar kept the African champions' hopes of advancing to the last 16 alive but Ecuador's draw against the Oranje gives the South American's the edge at Khalifa International Stadium.

Only a win will be enough for Senegal to progress to the knockout stage for the first time since reaching the quarter-finals in 2002, their first World Cup, and they will have to beat South American opposition at the World Cup for the first time having lost on two such previous occasions (Uruguay in 2002, Colombia in 2014).

Cisse is pondering tactical tweaks for the crucial clash.

"We have to think about the appropriate approach to the last match. We need to win to qualify for the last 16," Cisse said.

"Our concentration must be better as we could have avoided the goal that we conceded [against Qatar], but the Ecuador match will be different."

Coping without injured superstar Sadio Mane has been an issue for Senegal but the team shared scoring responsibility against Qatar, with three different scorers for the first time in their World Cup history.

 

Ecuador's defence has proven resolute this far, facing seven shots in two games, and this encounter marks the first time they have faced an African nation at the World Cup.

At the other end, Enner Valencia is looking to become just the second player to score seven straight goals for a single nation at a World Cup.

Valencia already has three in two appearances in Qatar and head coach Gustavo Alfaro was full of praise for the experienced forward.

"[Valencia] is a top-level player when he wears the Ecuador jersey. I tell him that he will be successful in the World Cup even if he wasn't so much in the qualification campaign," said Alfaro.

"He is going through such a good spell. He is the captain."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ecuador: Enner Valencia

Who else? Should he score Ecuador's first goal in the match against Senegal, the former West Ham and Everton man will equal Oleg Salenko's record for Russia in 1994 by scoring his nation's last seven at the World Cup.

His six goals in a row have come from just nine shots on target, converting 67 per cent of those, and will have a huge part to play if Ecuador are to advance past the group stage for the first time since 2006.

Senegal: Ismaila Sarr

Yet to score at the World Cup, Ismaila Sarr has had more shots for Senegal than anyone else (six), though only one of those has been on target – which came in his side's 3-1 victory over Qatar last time out.

Sarr remains a key attacking outlet for the African champions, with eight touches in the opposition box in the defeat to the Netherlands, more than anyone else, and four against Qatar, the second-highest in his side.

PREDICTION

A tight contest is expected in the winner-takes-all clash, though Stats Perform data gives Ecuador the better chance of a win at 42.4 per cent.

Senegal's hopes of getting the win they require to continue their exploits in Qatar are given a likelihood of 30.1 per cent, narrowly ahead of a draw at 27.5 per cent.

Netherlands World Cup captain Virgil van Dijk hit back in the face of stiff criticism from Dutch great Marco van Basten, retorting: "I don't think he's ever positive."

A World Cup draw against Ecuador on Friday was not a result the Netherlands were looking for, with the 1-1 outcome meaning Louis van Gaal's team missed a chance to nail down a last-16 place with a game to spare.

Late goals earned them victory over Senegal on matchday one, and the Dutch should have no trouble in beating hosts Qatar next Tuesday to make sure of a spot in the knock-out rounds.

But letting Cody Gakpo's sixth-minute opener against Ecuador be cancelled out by Enner Valencia's leveller early in the second half left former striker Van Basten unimpressed, particularly with the Oranje skipper.

Euro 88 hero Van Basten told Dutch broadcaster NOS: "You go in front very quickly. And then I think a thought arises: okay, we are ahead, we have to defend. But that is something that does not help us. I think Virgil should play the leading role in that. He talks a lot, but says nothing.

"Who's the best player on the team? That's Virgil. When you see what he does in possession... It's just tapping a ball to the players next to him. He needs to pick up the pace. It just goes way too slow."

Reacting to the remarks, Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk told Voetbal International: "I don't think he is ever positive, so what do you do with it?

"It is easy to make an analysis from [NOS headquarters in] Hilversum. I don't want to say that I played a fantastic game, not at all. But the things that are said about me failing as a captain: what do you do with that?

"I'm always at the front, I lead the team in the best way possible."

Van Dijk made more defensive clearances (6) than anyone else in Friday's game. He was kept busy as Ecuador had 15 shots to the Netherlands' paltry two, the Dutch team's lowest total at a World Cup since at least 1966, the first tournament for which such data is available.

Louis van Gaal believes the Netherlands must improve considerably if they are to win the World Cup, acknowledging Ecuador were "much better" than the Oranje in Friday's 1-1 draw.

The Netherlands and Ecuador sit locked together on four points in Group A after Enner Valencia cancelled out Cody Gakpo's opener at the Khalifa International Stadium, with the stalemate condemning hosts Qatar to an early exit.

Van Gaal's side were fortunate to hold off a much-improved Ecuador team after Valencia's equaliser, having scored with the only shot they mustered before the interval.

The Netherlands will only need a draw against bottom side Qatar to claim their place in the last 16 on Tuesday, but Van Gaal believes they must do better with sterner tests to come.

"If you want to become world champions, we need to improve a lot, because the quality of the opponents we have yet to face is at a much higher level," Van Gaal said.

The Netherlands failed to win a World Cup match after opening the scoring for the first time since 1998 (v Mexico), as Ecuador managed 15 shots to their opponents' two – the lowest tally recorded by a European team at the tournament since such data became available in 1966.

However, the Oranje are now unbeaten in their last 15 World Cup group-stage games (W11 D4), and Van Gaal was relieved by the end of Friday to avoid defeat against impressive opponents.

"I think we did not play a good match," Van Gaal said. "We didn't play well in ball possession, that was our problem in the first match [a 2-0 win over Senegal].

"All the second balls, all the duels were for Ecuador. There you cannot win, I believe.

"We're working on possession, and we will continue to work on that. Whether we will make it, I can't guarantee that. But I think we have several options in the midfield and I can try them out.

"We have lost sight of the balance here, but we can find it. The clever thing today is that we played the match and have one point against a much better opponent, that's how I see it."

Having led the Netherlands to a third-placed finish at the 2014 World Cup during the second of his three spells with the team, Van Gaal has now avoided defeat in all nine of his games at the finals, excluding penalty shoot-outs.

No coach has taken charge of more matches without losing in the tournament's history, with two-time winner Vittorio Pozzo also remaining unbeaten across nine contests.

The Netherlands missed the chance to become the first team at the World Cup to cement a last-16 place as Ecuador's Enner Valencia cancelled out Cody Gakpo's sublime strike in Friday's 1-1 draw. 

As in Monday's win over Senegal, Louis van Gaal's team were far from their fluid best, though they still took an early lead when in-demand forward Gakpo rifled in from 20 yards.

However, Ecuador were lively throughout and were good value for their leveller, which made Valencia just the fourth player in World Cup history to score six consecutive goals for a nation at the tournament, though the striker was forced off injured just before the end of the contest.

That could impact his hopes of landing the Golden Boot, but Valencia's strike kept Ecuador and the Oranje locked together on four points in Group A, and condemned hosts Qatar to an early exit after their 3-1 defeat to Senegal.

The Netherlands needed just six minutes to take the lead, and they did so in spectacular fashion as Gakpo latched onto Davy Klaassen's flick-on before hammering into the top-left corner.

Ecuador offered a positive response to that setback, however, forcing Virgil van Dijk into two last-ditch interventions before Valencia tested Andries Noppert from range.

La Tri thought they had found a leveller on the stroke of half-time, but Pervis Estupinan's instinctive finish was chalked off after the offside Jackson Porozo was ruled to have blocked Noppert's view.

Ecuador were not to be denied again within four minutes of the restart though, as Valencia pounced to tap home the rebound when Noppert saved Estupinan's effort.

Gustavo Alfaro's side almost capped an encouraging display with a second when Gonzalo Plata rattled the crossbar with a fine left-footed effort.

However, Ecuador's mood was dampened by a significant blow in the closing exchanges as Valencia was carried off on a stretcher after going down clutching his knee.

Ecuador believe they can hurt the Netherlands as they look to take a huge step towards the knockout rounds by springing another World Cup surprise.

The South American side cruised to victory over hosts Qatar in the tournament opener last Sunday.

A double from Enner Valencia secured a 2-0 win, giving Ecuador the chance to triumph in their opening two matches of a World Cup for the first time since 2006.

Yet their record against European nations suggests that will be a difficult challenge.

Indeed, Ecuador are winless in their last four World Cup games against European sides (D1 L3), scoring just once across those four matches.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last eight World Cup matches against South American sides (W5 D3), since a 3-2 defeat to Brazil in the quarter-finals in 1994, though that run includes a penalty shoot-out loss to Argentina in the 2014 semi-finals.

But, after seeing Argentina stunned by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Ecuador goalkeeper Hernan Galindez is hopeful Ecuador can throw the form book out the window and take control of Group A.

"I think that Argentina's defeat will not be the last surprise of this World Cup," said Galindez.

"Despite the victory of the Netherlands, they were evenly matched against Senegal. There are certainly ways to hurt the Netherlands.

"It will be a tough match, but I expect the Netherlands to approach us with respect."

Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk agreed with Galindez's assessment of the Oranje's performance in a 2-0 win over Senegal, in which he saw plenty of room for improvement.

"Going forward we sometimes tried to force things, and we too often left ourselves exposed to Senegal's counter-attacks," he told NOS.

"That is an area in which we will need to improve because it is an art that our next opponents, Ecuador, are very good at.

"But I am optimistic because I feel we are going to get better."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Netherlands - Cody Gakpo

PSV star Gakpo is the subject of speculation linking him with a move to the Premier League and his goalscoring start to the tournament will only have increased his admirers.

He has been involved in four goals in his last four games for the Netherlands in all competitions (3 goals, 1 assist), twice as many as in his first six appearances for the national side (1 goal, 1 assist).

Ecuador - Pervis Estupinan

Arguably Ecuador's best creative outlet will come from defence. Left-back Estupinan created the most chances (22) in CONMEBOL qualifying and played more passes into the final third (19) than any other player in their dominant opening win over Qatar.

PREDICTION

These two teams have never met in competitive action, the Oranje winning one of their two previous friendlies, and Stats Perform's supercomputer anticipates the Netherlands will be able to begin to start thinking about the knockouts with victory in this one. 

Van Gaal's men are given a 54.1 per cent chance of prevailing compared to 20.8 for Ecuador and 25.1 per cent for the draw. 

The Netherlands might not have the standout stars they had at the 2014 World Cup, but Louis van Gaal thinks the overall quality of his squad in Qatar is better.

Van Gaal, who was in typically good humour as he previewed the Netherlands' game against Ecuador, led the Dutch to the semi-finals eight years ago.

Memphis Depay, Daley Blind and Stefan de Vrij are the only players who featured in Van Gaal's squad in 2014, with the rest of the Oranje's selection in Qatar being World Cup debutants.

Although their squad lacks the leading lights of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben that Van Gaal had at his disposal in Brazil, the Netherlands coach thinks his squad of 2022 has more to offer across the board.

With Germany and Argentina losing their first matches, there is the possibility of the draw opening up, and Van Gaal sees no reason why his team cannot capitalise.

"I didn't see all the matches, but the fact that Germany and Argentina lost is somewhat telling, but I always say it's easier to defend than it is attack," he said in a press conference.

"I heard that Germany missed a lot of chances and then they lose. This has got to do with team discipline. This is why I say this group is great.

"They're the ones who have to put it into practice, execute my instructions for 90 minutes. If they don't perform as well, you put in the next player who will do his utmost.

"We have an average quality higher than 2014. I'm not talking about the top players we had at the time, perhaps Memphis is at that level and might reach that level, and Frenkie de Jong perhaps.

"But then the matches were decided by players like Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder. That's just the way it was.

"Now in our squad we have a much higher average. Forwards like Memphis, [Steven] Bergwijn, [Cody] Gakpo. I hope that will be a pleasant surprise."

Depay only featured as a substitute against Senegal on Monday, with the Barcelona forward recovering from an injury and lack of game time at club level.

Van Gaal is unsure if the 28-year-old will be fit to start against Ecuador.

"With Memphis, he was training in Amsterdam and that was individual," he added. "Now he needs to train with the team.

"We've increased intensity, he's played 30 minutes now. He isn't grappling too much with the issues. We're proceeding with the next step, which is 45 minutes.

"We're trying to extend that, because the injury he has makes it so difficult to decide when he can start.

"He's quite an extraordinary player, so I've set aside my principles because I consider him incredibly important."

With Gakpo and Davy Klaassen scoring in the win over Senegal, the Netherlands had two different players score in their first World Cup appearance for the first time since Wim Jonk and Gaston Taument did so against Saudi Arabia in 1994.

Depay is the only player to score in both of his first two World Cup games for the Netherlands, though Van Gaal feels PSV forward Gakpo, who is enjoying a fine season, has what it takes to become a superstar.

"He is a player with a lot of talent and potential, but he is young, and he's a player that's still developing, he has a lot of room for improvement," Van Gaal said.

"He's a personality to do whatever it takes. It is possible that he can become a star."

FIFA's Disciplinary Committee has opened an investigation over alleged homophobic chanting from Ecuador fans during their opening World Cup match against Qatar.

The South Americans were 2-0 victors against the hosts on Sunday, where it has been reported homophobic chants were directed towards rivals Chile.

Chile had accused Ecuador of fielding an ineligible player, Byron Castillo, during qualification for the tournament, with the 27-year-old left out of Ecuador's squad to prevent any further controversy.

Ecuador retained their spot at the World Cup but were issued a fine and handed a points deduction for their qualifying campaign for the 2026 tournament.

The are now also facing a FIFA investigation.

"The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has opened proceedings against the Ecuadorian Football Association due to chants by Ecuadorian supporters during the Qatar v Ecuador FIFA World Cup match played on 20 November," a statement read.

"The proceedings were opened on the basis of article 13 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code."

LGBTQ+ rights have been at the forefront of the World Cup as homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.

Seven nations, including England and Germany, had planned for their captains to wear the OneLove armband during the tournament.

However, the decision from each of the countries was taken not to do so after FIFA threatened to book captains if they broke regulations and made their own statements on social issues, rather than following guidelines from the game's governing body.

Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez says his side felt "backed and supported" despite a mass exodus from fans during a 2-0 defeat to Ecuador in their first ever World Cup match.

Enner Valencia spoiled the party with a first-half double in the opening match of the tournament at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday.

Valencia also had an early goal contentiously disallowed by the VAR for offside, but Qatar were well beaten and failed to register a shot on target in a lacklustre display.

They become the first home nation to lose the opening match of a World Cup, and many members of the crowd were clearly not impressed as they made an early exit in the second half.

Sanchez is focused on trying to made Qatar more competitive rather than bemoaning fans not sticking with their side, with Group A encounters against the Netherlands and Senegal to come.

"Truth be told, I have enough work to do to take a look at it," the Spaniard said.

"We felt backed and supported and we hope for the next game, people will feel prouder and keep supporting us to the end of the tournament.

"The atmosphere was great, people were very much looking forward to this game."

“We knew [a loss] could happen and the result can sometimes be difficult. We will try to learn from today and I'm completely sure we will make people feel more happy with our performance."

Qatar never got going and Sanchez offered no excuses for such a flat performance.

"There's no excuse, we want to congratulate our opponents, they deserved to win," he added.

"There is a lot of room for improvement. Maybe the responsibility and nerves got the best of us. We didn't start well. It was a terrible start."

Gustavo Alfaro says Enner Valencia will be fit to face Netherlands after the Ecuador captain inspired a 2-0 win over Qatar in the first game of the World Cup.

Valencia became Ecuador's record World Cup goalscorer with five courtesy of a first-half double in a one-sided Group A opener against the hosts on Sunday.

The striker had an early goal contentiously disallowed by the VAR at Al Bayt Stadium before opening the scoring from the penalty spot after he was brought down by Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb.

Ecuador's leading all-time goalscorer found the back of the net again with a powerful header as La Tri dominated the game in Al Khor.

There was concern when Valencia sustained a knee injury late in the first half and although he was able to continue, the skipper was withdrawn 15 minutes from time.

Ecuador head coach Alfaro allayed concerns over the 33-year-old's condition ahead of the clash with the Oranje at Khalifa International Stadium in Ar-Rayyan on Friday and praised the captain for silencing his critics.

"He is the all-time top scorer for Ecuador, he is going through tough times, he was questioned at times in Ecuador," said Alfaro.

"He managed to score, which means a lot to him. Four or five players took a few blows, but nothing serious.

"Enner will play against the Netherlands, there is no doubt about that."

Qatar were devoid of ideas, failing to register a shot on target as they became the first host nation to lose an opening match of a World Cup.

Felix Sanchez, the Qatar boss, knows they must go back to the drawing board before taking on Senegal on Friday after they were outplayed in their first ever World Cup match.

The Spaniard said: "We fought this game in a certain way, but our opponent had their own ideas. It's not that we didn't want to attack, but our opponent head their own weapons.

"If we want to be competitive, we will need to defend, and be very well organised. When we have possession of the ball we would like to be more effective.

"We will try to help our players and see if we can progress in all these aspects."

Enner Valencia scored twice as Ecuador spoiled the party by beating hosts Qatar 2-0 in the first game of the World Cup.

Valencia had an early goal contentiously ruled out for offside at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday, but Qatar were unable to heed the warning.

The clinical captain become Ecuador's leading World Cup goalscorer with a tally of four by opening the scoring with a penalty and struck again with a bullet first-half header.

Qatar looked out of their depth in their first ever World Cup match, failing to register a shot on target as Ecuador made an encouraging start in Group A.

Valencia looked to have put La Tri in front with a header in the third minute after goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb flapped at a free-kick, but eyebrows were raised when Michael Estrada was deemed to be marginally offside following a VAR check.

The striker was not to be denied 13 minutes later, coolly sending Al Sheeb the wrong way from the spot after the shaky keeper brought him down.

Valencia capitalised on Qatar's defensive frailties again just after the half-hour mark, rising unmarked to meet Angelo Preciado's whipped cross from the right with a brilliant header that found the bottom-left corner.

Qatar had not posed a threat, but Almoez Ali somehow nodded wide from close range right on the stroke of half-time.

Valencia required treatment for a knee injury late in the first half but was able to continue and Ecuador continued to dominate after the break, Al Sheeb palming away Romario Ibarra's strike.

Qatar were devoid of ideas and Mohammed Muntari fired over when a rare chance came late on as Ecuador eased to victory, although there was concern when Valencia was withdrawn with 15 minutes to go seemingly still being troubled by that knee problem.

History will be made when hosts Qatar get the World Cup under way with a clash against Ecuador and head coach Felix Sanchez says "you never know what can happen".

Al Bayt Stadium will be the venue for the opening match of the tournament on Sunday and Qatar's first World Cup game.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup champions are not expected to qualify from Group A, which also includes Netherlands and Senegal.

Sanchez is realistic over the host nation's prospects but is relishing the challenge of trying to defy expectations.

The Spaniard said: "Obviously, I'm not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup, but competing at a good level against those three teams is our challenge.

"Then this is football, and you never know what can happen."

Ecuador are 44th in the world rankings, only six places higher than Qatar as they prepare to lock horns in Al Khor.

Defender Byron Castillo was a late omission from Gustavo Alfaro's squad due to a dispute over his nationality this week.

Alfaro knows his Ecuador side are not well fancied to make their presence felt but expects them to make life difficult for their group rivals.

He said: "The World Cup is totally different from what the qualifiers are. If we are going to play the way we played the qualifiers, most likely we won't have a chance, because we are going to play against the Asian champions, against the African champions and against the Netherlands, who are in the final four in Europe. 

"They are teams that are superior to what we are, for a reason we were in pot number four in the draw, if we had been the best we would have been in pot one or two. We have to be make things difficult, we have to be the pebble in their shoe."

If history is anything to go by, there should be entertainment on Sunday, as the past four opening World Cup games have produced 17 goals at an average of 4.25 per match.

Al Bayt Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for Qatar, as they have won their three previous matches at the venue with an aggregate score of 9-0.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Qatar – Almoez Ali 

Striker Ali was the leading scorer when Qatar were crowned the champions of Asia three years ago, scoring nine goals in seven games.

That impressive tally was achieved from only 10 shots on target and was a record for a single edition of the tournament. Qatar will need him to be clinical on the biggest stage of all on home soil.

Ecuador - Pervis Estupinan 

Left-back Estupinan can make an impact at both ends of the field for Ecuador.

The Brighton and Hove Albion full-back created 22 chances during a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, more than any other defender.

 

PREDICTION

Ecuador are fancied to spoil the party and get off to a winning start. 

According to Stats Perform’s AI model, Alfaro's men have a 41.4 per cent chance of securing all three points, with the draw rated at 29 per cent.

Qatar have a 29.6 per cent chance of coming out on top, according to the model, in what looks like being their best opportunity to register a historic victory.

Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro says the absent Byron Castillo "will be with us" in an emotional sense after a controversial nationality dispute led to the defender not going to the World Cup.

Castillo was the subject of a complaint made by Chile in May, with the Chilean Football Federation alleging he was born in Colombia rather than Ecuador.

The case initially put Ecuador's World Cup qualification in doubt until the FIFA investigation was closed in June, and FIFA's Appeal Committee confirmed no further action was being taken three months later.

Chile appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who acknowledged Castillo's birthplace as being in Colombia, but the claim was dismissed on the basis of Ecuador legally recognising the player as Ecuadorian.

Nevertheless, Ecuador were still hit with a three-point deduction for the next World Cup qualification campaign for using a "document containing false information", and Alfaro was made to leave Castillo out of his squad for the World Cup as the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) wanted to avoid "further unfair sanctions".

Speaking ahead of Sunday's clash with host nation Qatar, the opening game of the 2022 World Cup, Alfaro said: "I gave my opinion. He should be here, that's my opinion.

"I expressed my opinion about the CAS decision. I'm head coach, not a lawyer, I expressed an opinion, I talked to lawyers.

"I respect the decisions [of the Federation]. Byron should be here, but I respect the decision. We'll wait to see if they clarify why the three points [deduction] in the next qualifying stage, but the World Cup started in October. If he's ineligible for the World Cup, then he was [ineligible] for [October]. Ecuador is always facing hardship.

"We didn't cap him while the investigation was open. But after two sentences that said Byron was Ecuadorian, we did cap him.

"If you had only seen the pain Byron has had to endure…the love from the squad to Byron, he's now our symbol, and he'll be with us on the pitch even if he's not with us [physically]."

While there was undoubted sadness in Alfaro's voice as he discussed Castillo's situation, he otherwise spoke with great pride on Saturday as Ecuador prepare to take part in the World Cup's opening act.

He allowed himself a moment to reflect on his own history and the World Cup exploits of his Argentinian compatriots in the past, specifically Carlos Bilardo and Cesar Luis Menotti, winners in 1986 and 1978 respectively.

"First of all, as an Argentinian national, a coach, it fills us with pride [to work at a World Cup]," he continued. "In Argentina, the coaches all make a great effort to be professionals and reach this level, especially coaches like me who've had to work from the bottom up.

"I coached in the lower divisions and have a broad experience with different teams. Now this is my first national team [job] and World Cup. Looking back, there are so many famous Argentinian coaches who acted as beacons.

"Myself, Lionel [Scaloni, Argentina coach], Tata Martino [Mexico coach], we want to continue that legacy. It's up to us to represent Argentinian coaches now.

"Many have been in this position before. It's a great privilege for me to be part of that exclusive list of coaches at a World Cup, but on the other hand there aren't that many of us who've been able to coach our team in the opening game.

"Today, I feel very proud to come from Rafaela, to have been part of regional football in Argentina, and also the top division.

"I dreamed of being a coach there when everything felt so hard. I overcame many challenges and hurdles.

"I was told I wasn't good enough, wasn't up to the expectations, but when we dream we are able to achieve, I now have the privilege of being here talking to you."

Felix Sanchez has sought to ensure Qatar focus on their football amid the controversy around the nation's hosting of the World Cup ahead of Sunday's opener against Ecuador.

But the Qatar coach is also realistic about his side's ambitions at their first finals, considering Ecuador clear favourites and suggesting Group A rivals may have already written the hosts off.

Sanchez was the first coach to hold a pre-match news conference on Saturday, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino's extraordinary opening address still prominent in the thoughts of many.

Infantino had defended Qatar following criticisms of human rights issues, its treatment of migrant workers and the illegality of homosexuality.

The topic of workers' rights was put to Sanchez, who replied: "A lot has been said about this – some misinformation, in my opinion. Some of the comments weren't completely fair, in my opinion.

"Obviously the loss of human life in working hours is the greatest tragedy we can endure, whether here in Qatar or anywhere else in the world.

"We just hope this World Cup means all together we can work to benefit the conditions for these groups, not just in Qatar but everywhere else in the world."

Asked whether the controversies had distracted from Asian champions Qatar's efforts on the field, the coach said: "I think that the best thing that can happen to a team and a footballer is to keep calm, avoid any sort of rumours and noise around you from a football point of view.

"Obviously we don't like people criticising our country, but in terms of football strictly we managed to have a great preparation for the World Cup.

"We kept calm. We are in good form. All the players come here with the highest motivation for tomorrow. We will try to give a good performance and be competitive.

"We have to be realistic around possibilities, but we have to do well."

Sanchez believes Qatar are "worthy to be here", but his realism was reflected in his analysis of a group that contains the Netherlands and Senegal, as well as Ecuador.

"It's three games, and we know the level of our opponent," said the Catalan. "Due to their history, their individual talent, their careers where they play, they are ahead of us.

"On paper, they should get the three points. Maybe they count on the three points already.

"But we are here to show we can be a competitive team. We will bring our 'A game' and try to get good results that will bring so much joy."

Qatar captain Hassan Al Haydos added: "We want to show the results of all of our hard work. God willing, we will perform much better than any game before."

Al Haydos appeared to be amused when an internet rumour, which claimed Ecuador had been offered a bribe to lose, was relayed to Sanchez.

"I said before: I think there is a lot of disinformation," the coach said. "The internet is great, but it is also very dangerous, from my point of view.

"For many years, we have been preparing, training. Together we are strong, nobody will be able to destabilise us with this criticism and statements.

"We are very motivated, excited and happy to be playing in a World Cup tomorrow. We are focusing on how to arrive with our best conditions. We don't take anything else into account."

Page 1 of 4
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.