Host the World Cup. Invite all of football, as well as its glare and attention. Work your way through 12 years of preparation, planning and build-up. But then what? It’s a question Qatar have never really come close to answering at their own World Cup. They had already made history by becoming the first host nation to be knocked out after just two matches. Without anything to play for against the Netherlands, they at least had the chance to go out with a final flourish. But Qatar produced nothing, and perhaps the most controverisal World Cup hosts in tournament history will also go down as one of the most forgettable, too.
The Netherlands are through - that much was never in doubt with Louis van Gaal’s side only requiring a draw to advance. They do so as winners of Group A, after Senegal leapfrogged Ecaudor at the last, but without impressing at any stage. Cody Gakpo has been the only bright spark of their World Cup so far and scored the opening goal for the third match in a row. This is increasingly becoming his team, and the Dutch will cling on to his exciting talent when they face the runners-up of Group B in the last 16 on Saturday.
Crucially, that may not be England. In the end, Netherlands did not need to rack up the goals to avoid being beaten to top spot, and therefore avoiding a potential clash with Gareth Southgate’s side. That said, there was very little evidence here that the Netherlands will find the USA, Iran, or Wales any easier. The return of Memphis Depay has at least come just in time. The 28-year-old started his first match of the tournament and was involved in the second goal after the break, as Frenkie de Jong pounced on some more hesitant Qatar defending.
But once again, it was Gakpo who produced their breakthrough moment. After an opening 26 minutes that had lacked inspiration and quality, and which Qatar were beginning to hold their own, Gakpo flicked to Davy Klaasen, exchanged a smart one-two, and curled into the far corner on the stretch. It was Gakpo’s third goal of the World Cup, joining the likes Wesley Sneijder and Dennis Bergkamp to score in three World Cup games in a row for the Netherlands, and came as the 23-year-old forward decided to take matters into his own hands.
Someone needed to. Qatar had forced a save out of Andries Noppert after Marten de Roon gave the ball away on the edge of the box. Virgil van Dijk frowned as the Netherlands conceded consecutive corners. The Netherlands never looked in danger, though, while Qatar panicked every time the ball bounced and ricocheted in their box. It had gone unpunished in the first half, but the hapless defending that has in many ways defined Qatar’s performances on the pitch at this World Cup was their undoing after the break.
Boualem Khoukhi, who was culpable for Senegal’s opening goal earlier in Group A, was again found at the scene of the crime as he flicked a cross from Denzel Dumfries towards his back post. Depay made a smart run off the shoulder and saw his volley saved at close range by Meshaal Barsham. De Jong, following it in, pounced to get in front of two Qatar defenders and poke in his first World Cup goal. Khoukhi and his defensive partner Ró-Ró were rooted to their heels.
It was job done, and with Ecuador trailing Senegal there was very little jeopardy in the second half, while the excitement could be found in the corresponding Group A fixture as well. Substitutes combined as Vincent Jansen and Steven Berghuis walked in a third goal, only for it to be disallowed for handball from Gakpo in the build-up. From there, the Netherlands stopped playing. Van Gaal’s side failed to convince in a group that has been the weakest of the tournament. They are through but look susceptible to a last-16 exit, unless a dramatic improvement can be found.
And, for Qatar, that was it. A group of players who had been tasked with producing the biggest upset in World Cup history, who had trained extensively and almost as a club team for the past 12 months, never looked close to achieving it. For the people of Qatar, the success of their World Cup was never going to be determined by its team. It would be fair to suggest they expected more than this, though, as a campaign they had waited 12 years for came to a damp and drab conclusion at an Al Bayt Stadium that was barely two-thirds full. Qatar, we barely knew you, although we also now do thanks to the World Cup. For their team, they may not reach this stage again for some time.