ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan 31 – Qatar’s transformation from also-rans to Asian Cup finalists was meticulously planned and has been years in the making — and has finally given Qataris some swagger as they prepare to host the World Cup.
The wealthy Gulf state has long projected its power through football, notably by winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup and by buying Paris Saint-Germain, the club of Neymar, the world’s most expensive player.
What was missing was a respectable national team, but Qatar seem to have solved that problem after putting together a record-breaking run in hostile conditions in the United Arab Emirates.
Plastic bottles and even shoes rained down on the Qatari players as they thrashed the hosts 4-0 to reach their first Asian Cup final, keeping an unprecedented sixth clean sheet in the process.
The ongoing Gulf blockade of Qatar has sent tensions sky-high, and with Qataris largely barred from UAE the Maroons have been virtually bereft of fans. But despite this, they have cut a swathe through the competition.
Almoez Ali has netted a record-equalling eight times, and Qatar’s goal difference of scored 16, conceded none is the best in Asian Cup history.
It is a far cry from 2015, when Qatar lost all three group games and left with zero points, with the prospect of World Cup embarrassment looming on the horizon.
But whatever happens in Friday’s final with Japan, Qatar have shown they need to be taken seriously in 2022, despite being the World Cup’s first post-war hosts not to have previously played in the competition.
– ‘Like a family’ –
Qatar’s success on the pitch stems from Doha’s Aspire Academy, which has produced athletes of the calibre of world champion high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim.
But the major focus is football and Aspire has gone to the lengths of buying clubs in Spain and Belgium, and forging links with others including Leeds United, to give its players greater exposure.
The quality of the facilities is such that Aspire is sought out for warm-weather training by major European clubs like Manchester United and Bayern Munich.
It also searches far and wide for high-quality coaches, including current national team boss Felix Sanchez, who moved from Barcelona’s academy in 2006.
Sanchez was in charge of Qatar’s under-19s in 2014 when they won their first Asian title, with a squad including Ali and several others now at the Asian Cup.
“We work very hard all the time. Every training session we train together, it’s like a family,” Portuguese-born defender Pedro Correia told AFP.
“All the time we’re like a family, it’s important. And we take that into the games… we’re in the final because of that.”
After leaving Aspire, nearly all the players join Qatari teams with close links to the academy. Eight of the semi-final starters came from the same club, Al Sadd.
“We like to keep the ball, play football. This is our style, it’s good football, enjoyable. Believe me, we work very hard every training session to play like this,” Correia said.
However, Qatar’s expansion in football is not without controversy and serial claims of corruption and vote-buying — strongly denied by Qatari officials — followed their victory in the World Cup hosting race in 2010.
Among the claims were accusations that implicated Aspire, casting suspicion on its scouting network’s activities in countries with strong influence within FIFA.
Criticism of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, moving the tournament to winter and the proposal to expand it to 48 teams have all contributed to what has been a rocky World Cup build-up.
But all this is of little concern to the team, who will take another step in their World Cup preparations when they play this year’s Copa America as guests, along with Japan.
“We’re working very hard with the young players in this team,” said Correia. “All the players are 22, 23. This is all part of the thinking to prepare for the World Cup 2022.”