Half Mag / Half Zine

Criticism of Qatar’s human rights record, its sporting integrity and allegations that Ecuador players have been offered bribes to throw the opening game of the World Cup will not destabilise the host nation, the head coach Félix Sánchez has insisted.

Qatar’s first participation in a World Cup has been overshadowed by controversies off the pitch with questions over their results in pre-tournament friendlies and claims of inducements being offered to Sunday’s opponents the latest to cloud preparations. However, Sánchez, a former Barcelona youth coach who joined the Aspire Academy in Qatar 16 years ago, claimed it is a concerted effort to unsettle the host nation and will not succeed.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” said Sánchez in response to the bribery rumours. “The internet is a great tool but it is also very dangerous. No one will be able to destabilise us with these statements. We are not affected at all. We are very happy to be playing in a World Cup tomorrow. We are focused on bringing our A-game and will not take anything else into account.”

He added: “The best thing you can do as a team or as a footballer is keep calm and avoid any rumours or noise around you. Obviously we don’t like people criticising our country but in terms of football we have had great preparation.”

The Catalan coach was less dismissive of the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, where thousands have died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. He said: “The loss of human life in working hours is a great tragedy whether it’s here in Qatar or anywhere else in the world. I just hope this World Cup means that we can all work together to benefit the conditions for these groups, not just in Qatar but everywhere else in the world.”

Qatar are 50th in the men’s world rankings and have never qualified for a World Cup, although they are reigning Asian Cup champions – beating Japan 3-1 in the 2019 final – and reached the semi-finals of the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup when invited. “If we’d have participated in the qualifiers this time we would have qualified,” claimed captain Hassan al-Haydos, Qatar’s most-capped player with 169 appearances. “This edition of the World Cup is for all Arabs and we bear responsibility for all Arabs. There are four Arab squads taking part and I wish all of them the best of luck.”

Sánchez’s squad prepared for a group that also contains Senegal and the Netherlands with a four-month training camp earlier this year followed by a month-long camp in Spain last month.

“All of our players play in our local league so we decided that one way of strengthening the national team was to take them out of their clubs so they are ready for the national team,” he explained. “It has been a massive sacrifice. We spent a long period of time abroad and away from our families. That shows our commitment.

“Tomorrow is a very important day for us, a historic moment. It will be an extraordinary day like no other. We have made such a huge effort in this country. We are all devoted to this World Cup. I just hope it’s a great party where we can enjoy the football on the pitch and, off it, the whole world can enjoy this experience.”