Why Qatar's football team are genuine contenders for 2022
In December 2010, Qatar shocked the world by being selected as host for the 2022 World Cup. When the action finally kicks off next November, those who have not seen ‘The Maroon’ in action before may get another surprise: the national team is actually good.
There has been plenty of comments from European media outlets about, and questions asked to, the 2022 World Cup host about the safety of migrant workers who have been building the state-of-the-art stadiums that will feature 32 teams next November and December. There were also comments about Qatar’s football prowess. Before bidding for the World Cup, little was known. The tendency was, especially in Europe, to dismiss it.
There have been untold comments on social media complaining that the country of three million people has no football history. While such criticism is unfair, it is understandable that fans outside Europe knew nothing of the country’s football culture as it has never qualified for the World Cup
Hours after the original decision was made by the world governing body FIFA, former Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said that giving the tournament to Qatar was an “economic choice” and that the sport was the loser. The Guardian wrote back in 2014 that the country was “almost unknown and unnoticed in football until its World Cup bid grew formidable.”
There have been untold comments on social media complaining that the country of three million people has no football history. While such criticism is unfair, it is understandable that fans outside Europe knew nothing of the country’s football culture as it has never qualified for the World Cup or had any real impact in Asia. The 2022 tournament will be the first in modern history in which the host is also making its first appearance.
The road to 2022
Almost 11 years after that FIFA decision, however, there is no doubt that the Qatar national team has improved considerably thanks to years of planning, preparation and plenty of investment.
In 2004 Qatar was already looking to improve its youth development however and spent an incredible $1.3 billion on the Aspire Academy in Doha, one of the biggest and best training facilities in the world.
A new generation of players arrived there and have grown up together. Some of them were born overseas but came to Qatar at a young age such as Bassam Al-Rawi, born in Iraq, and Almoez Ali from Sudan. There are others like Portuguese-born Pedro Miguel who arrived in Qatar to play for local league clubs and, after staying five years, have been naturalised as FIFA rules allow.
This five-year rule is being invoked elsewhere too with the Chinese team, with a population around 400 times bigger than Qatar, recently including three Brazilian-born players in their squad. Just over half of Qatar’s current squad were born in Doha and its surroundings.
A new team
In 2014, there were the first signs of something happening as Qatar won the Asian Under-19 Championships. In 2018, the U-23 team finished third at the continental level. Both teams were led by Felix Sanchez.
The Spaniard spent ten years as a coach with Barcelona’s youth team, regarded as the best in the world at the time. In 2006, he made the move to Aspire and seven years later took over Qatar’s U-19 team. Four years after that, he was in charge of the U-23 team and the senior side. Here was a coach who specialised in improving young players, coming up through the ranks alongside the same players.
Despite the improvement, Qatar shocked the rest of the continent by winning the Asian Cup in January 2019, the biggest tournament in the world’s biggest continent. It was a dominant performance.
They won all seven games in the tournament, scored 19 goals and conceded just one. On the way, they defeated Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Korea, host United Arab Emirates and then Japan in the final.
Almoez Ali scored a tournament record of nine goals with winger Akram Afif making many of them. Ali was named MVP while Afif went on to become the Asian Player of the Year.
More international experience
Winning in Asia was one thing but Qatar still wanted more international experience. In June that year, Qatar headed to South America to play in its continental tournament, Copa America. It was also no coincidence that Qatar Airways was named as a major sponsor of South American football in October 2018.
The team finished bottom of the group but, in very foreign conditions in Brazil, were competitive in all three games: drawing 2-2 with Paraguay, losing 1-0 to Colombia and 2-0 to two-time world champions Argentina.
It was less about the results and more about gaining experience in a competitive environment outside Asia. Qatar was invited back to the 2021 edition but due to the global pandemic could not make the journey.
They are involved however in the European qualification for the 2022 World Cup too though their results don’t count towards the standings of Group A. So far, Qatar has beaten Luxembourg and Azerbaijan and drawn with Ireland.
Those that dismissed Qatar as a football nation in 2010 and haven’t been following their fortunes since may be in for a surprise in November 2022
Now they are at the Gold Cup, the show-piece tournament for North and Central America, currently being held in the United States. Once again, Qatar Airways is a major sponsor of Concacaf, the region’s confederation.
On the pitch, however, there is no doubt that Qatar has impressed. They won the group ahead of Panama, Honduras and Grenada. That earned a quarter-final with El Salvador that also ended in victory.
“They've been good,” said John Arnold, a US journalist who contributes to the New York Times and the BBC. “They're clearly a team that has been together for a long time, not just in the way we typically talk about in international football but all the way back to the Aspire Academy.”
Qatar’s sights are still very much set on the 2022 World Cup. They gave been preparing for years and have travelled the planet playing competitive games against international opposition. Those that dismissed Qatar as a football nation in 2010 and haven’t been following their fortunes since may be in for a surprise in November 2022.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden