Half Mag / Half Zine

If there was a World Cup for the most-travelled of the 32 gathering teams over the past few years, Qatar would go far. The squad finally arrived home last weekend before the big kick-off, stepping off the plane at Doha airport knowing that more than a decade of waiting and working was about to end. Should Sunday’s Group A opener against Ecuador not go well, however, the nightmare of following South Africa into the unwanted record books as a host that fell at the group stage will be very real. Senegal and the Netherlands come next.

Bafana Bafana’s 2010 failure was lamented but for many watching around the world, the usual hope that the host nation does well will not apply for Qatar. It’s also fairly certain that most are unaware of their prospects given Qatar have no history at the World Cup. But even those who have watched the team for years are curious to see how it all turns out, not least Félix Sánchez.

The Spanish coach started work at Doha’s Aspire Academy back in 2006 and, along with a number of players, moved up through the age ranks and was promoted to take charge of the senior side in 2017. Evidence that the former Barcelona academy coach has been successful is the simple fact that the 46-year-old is still in command. Many felt that two or so years out from 2022, the groundwork would have been laid for a big-name foreign coach such as Pep Guardiola, who played in the country and was an ambassador for the bid back in 2010. It has not been discussed in Doha.

In 2019, Qatar, who had never made a splash at the Asian Cup, won the tournament in emphatic fashion, cruising to the title in a hostile atmosphere in the neighbouring United Arab Emirates at a time of the Qatar blockade. Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Lebanon, Iraq, South Korea and hosts the UAE were all defeated before a 3-1 victory over Japan in the final. It was a dominant performance with 19 goals scored and one conceded. The two attacking stars were Almoez Ali, who scored a record-breaking nine goals, and Akram Afif who contributed 10 assists. Midfielders Hassan al-Haydos and Abdulaziz Hatem made the official team of the tournament as did the defenders Abdelkarim Hassan, Bassam al-Rawi and Boualem Khoukhi.

Since then, Qatar – 50th in Fifa’s world rankings – have been on tour, playing in the 2019 Copa América where they earned a 2-2 draw with Paraguay and suffered narrow defeats against Colombia and Argentina. At the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, Qatar won their group and reached the semi-finals only to be knocked out by the USA 1-0. Ali ended up as top scorer in yet another continental championship. Many were impressed by a team that looked smooth as a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 and liked to attack more than defend.

As well as all the travels that included 10 European friendlies, the national team – who all play at home – have been training together since June, mainly in Spain. “We have had a good preparation programme, taking into account that we are Qatar, a small country with little experience,” said Sánchez.

The big question, of course, is will it be enough against Ecuador, a game that the country has waited for since 2010? Perhaps it would have been better to play the Netherlands in the opener, get all the razzmatazz out of the way and then focus on the next two matches which, on paper at least, are more winnable games.

“We already know that there is that pressure, and we don’t have to add to it,” said Sánchez. “We try to isolate ourselves from the noise around us and focus on getting our best performance. It’s difficult because then you go on to the pitch, you see 60,000 people. It’s the first World Cup match and there’s so much expectation that it’s hard, but that experience will help them.”

There is concern that Qatar have passed their peak. Performances this year have been mixed. This is a side that would have loved to have hosted the World Cup not just last summer but two or three winters ago. No fewer than 15 of the squad and most of the starting 11 were at the Asian Cup almost four years ago. Eighteen of Sánchez’s players came through the Aspire Academy. He has introduced little new blood and the team are heavily reliant on the attacking pair of Ali and Afif.

What may change is the tactical approach with Qatar sitting back on home soil. “It would be suicide to try to take the initiative if we want to be competitive,” said Sánchez. “We try to be compact defensively, allow the minimum opportunities and be strong in transitions.”

For Qatar, it is a case of whatever works after the longest pre-World Cup preparation period in history.