2022 marks a milestone for Qatar as they welcome the eyes of the globe to the first ever winter World Cup and, as a result of them hosting, ‘The Maroons’ will also compete in their debut tournament.
Aside from the politics and controversy that is surrounding the bid itself and, indeed, the hosting of such a prestigious event, let’s take a look at the history of football in the nation, how they’re building a squad towards 2022, what they can realistically achieve and a whole lot more.
Their first ever international match came on the 27th March 1970 against Bahrain – a 2-1 loss – and since then they’ve had a relatively quiet history until they were thrust into the limelight when they were awarded the hosting rights to the World Cup back in 2010. Since then the everyone has been keeping a firm eye on the miniscule Arab nation.
Up until now their finest era came in the 1990s where they were able to attain an all-time record ranking of 51st in the world in August 1993. The decade began with their campaign for qualification to USA ‘94.
Drawn in an initial group with North Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam, Qatar were in a tricky pool with North Korea and Singapore expected to give the Qatari’s their sternest challenge. Things got off to a flying start, nonetheless, with thumping victories over Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore (3-1, 4-0 and 4-1, respectively) putting them at the top of the table after three matches.
A crunch match in the capital, Doha, against North Korea was their fourth game in nine days and the Korean’s superior talent combined with the fatigue of the Qatari’s saw them succumb to a 2-1 defeat.
Despite this setback they hit back with a 4-1 demolishing of Indonesia followed by a 4-0 victory over Vietnam to keep their chances of advancing to the second stage in the balance – two games remained against the pre-tournament favourites, Singapore and North Korea – a slip up against the Singaporeans saw them needing a victory against North Korea in order to dethrone them at the summit.
A sensational start saw them go 1-0 up courtesy of a Khalil Al-Malki goal in the first minute before Cho In-Chol and Kim Gyonh-Il put the Korean’s in control of their destiny; Al-Malki struck back in the 86th minute to set up a tempestuous finale to the match but, unfortunately, for the men led by Sebastiao Lapola there would be no fairy-tale ending.
Throughout the 90s the country developed a core Brazilian influence which still exists today – more on the current flavour later – with no less than nine Brazilian managers taking to the helm (none of them lasting much longer than 12 months) all attempting to bring the flair and flamboyance of South American football to this developing nation.
To an extent you could say this plan paid off, the nation certainly played the most attractive football in their history during this period – arguably the most attractive in Asia at the time with players like Mubarak Mustafa and Mahmoud Soufi, national legends, all being products of this attacking era of play.
The one thing they failed to establish throughout the decade was coaching stability with those nine Brazilian managers being less than half of their 19 total managers from 1990 to 2000 which only goes to show how impressive a squad they managed to assemble in order to rise up the ranks despite the turmoil residing over the governing body, the Qatar Football Association.
Parallels from this can be drawn with their current crop of players – still the coaching instability remains although, admittedly, to less of an extent than the 90s, but the football that they play is openly aggressive and gung-ho, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck.
To be more literal in what remains consistent, there is still an overtly Brazilian influence at the core of the squad with Rodrigo Tabata and Luiz Junior being just two players born in the South American country to end up being “naturalized” for the Qatari national team.
There is nothing illegal in this act but it has raised eyebrows across governing bodies and certainly raises a few ethical questions along the way – several reports last year suggested that Qatar were exploiting their immense oil and gas wealth to, in essence, “buy” players from Latin America hailing from poorer regions by offering them vast salaries which, in turn, would eventually see them become Qatari citizens.
To such an extent was this an issue that on November 15th 2016, six players in the starting eleven against China were born abroad – truth be told there is no real difference between that and Owen Hargreaves playing for England, as opposed to Canada, aside from that there appears to be financial influence and it’s occurring on an unprecedented scale.
Morality of this aside the squad that has been assembled, by whatever means, is increasingly impressive with a combative midfield being the main area of strength;
Playing with a mixture of youth and experience, Hassan Al-Haidos has been a mainstay along the wing since 2008 with 95 appearances and 20 goals to his name; as a result of Al-Haidos’ maturity at just 27, the federation has been able to bring forward young starts to be “mentored” by the two-time league winner.
Akram Afif is one such flighty youngster being nurtured carefully and is considered to be one of the most promising players in the whole of Asia, yet alone Qatar. As the first Qatari-born player to appear in La Liga he’s already making history for the nation and his trickery along the wing, whilst still raw, has been the bane of many an opponent’s life during his 31 game international career.
Their stature across Asian football seems to be solidifying with the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign demonstrating their skills to a whole new level of success – seven wins in their first eight games, including a 1-0 victory over group favourites China, saw them progress to the third and final round of qualification whilst a 15-0 thumping of minnows Bhutan showcased their plethora of attacking talent.
In that final round results didn’t go their way but performances were often promising – particularly in a spirited 2-0 defeat to Iran where they only lost to two goals deep into extra time; a 3-2 victory over South Korea was, undoubtedly, the highlight of the campaign with that combination of Al-Haidos and Afif proving that they can mix it with a team held in high esteem across the world.
The main problem with Qatar is their failure to perform consistently – a flaw which will lessen over time when the players and manager have time to gel cohesively; wins like the ones against South Korea and Russia prove that when they click they’re scintillating but defeats to Curacao and draws against Moldova and North Korea highlight the lack of a finished article.
But that’s actually a good thing, because the World Cup is four years away and if they knew now what their best team was then it’s inevitable that across those four years, disarray would occur; the fact they’re giving the youth experience now in order to prepare them for the big time is a testament to their bravery in allowing untested players the chance to perform with a clear vision for 2022.
Qatar gets a lot of bad press whether it be for how they won the actual bid process, human rights or their attitudes to homosexuality – all of which is warranted and deserved specific attention – but from a purely footballing point of view then there’s a lot to be excited about considering how far ‘The Maroons’ has come in such a very short space of time.