Qatar has lofty goals for this year’s World Cup, not only in terms of hosting it successfully, but also in terms of how far their national team can advance.
This will be their first appearance in the tournament, having qualified by virtue of hosting, and they hope to advance beyond the group stage.
That may appear to be a lofty goal for a country with little football history and a population of Qataris smaller than Leicester.
They are not, however, cowards. They are Asian champions and have spent at least a generation preparing for this moment, so how have Qatar created a football team capable of surprising the world and progressing to the knockout stages?
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Work begins long before Qatar was named World Cup 2022 host country in 2010.
The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 raised eyebrows, not only from an ethical standpoint, but also from a football standpoint, given the country’s limited football history.
They did not play their first official match until 1970, when they lost 2-1 to neighboring Bahrain, and have a small pool of players – the country has a population of 2.9 million people, but only around 300,000 are Qataris.
“Qatar has a strict requirement that you have no rights to citizenship even if you are born in the country but your parents are not Qataris,” John McManus, social anthropologist and author of Inside Qatar, told BBC Sport.
“Part of the reason for this is to keep the benefits of citizenship so generous – 11% of Qatar nationals receive free education, a well-paid job, and a slew of other big perks. More people gaining citizenship would necessitate greater distribution.”
Despite the challenges of having a limited number of players at their disposal, they produced some notable results over the next few decades.
Qatar reached the final of the 1981 Youth World Championship in Australia, defeating Brazil and England on the way, and they advanced to the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Olympics before winning the Gulf Cup in the early 1990s.
In March 2022, Qatar World Cup 2022 Secretary General Hassan Al-Thawadi tells Dan Roan hosts that the country is “ready to welcome the world.”
However, at the turn of the century, the drive to truly improve the national team so that it could be more competitive globally accelerated.
Qatar looked to see if they could add some South American flair to their playing squad after enjoying some good results under Brazilian coaches in previous decades, including Olympic and Gulf Cup success under Sebastiao Lapola.
Despite their own stringent naturalisation rules, Qatar attempted to sign uncapped Brazilian trio Ailton, Dede, and Leandro in 2004, who were significant players in the German Bundesliga at the time.
The trio had no prior ties to Qatar, but their attempt to naturalise was ultimately blocked by Fifa, who tightened regulations so that players had to demonstrate a “clear connection” to those they hoped to represent, which included spending a set amount of time in the country before they could be naturalised.
“Fifa tightened the rules in response to what Qatar attempted to do, and they made it more difficult to import talent,” McManus added.
“They switched tactics and focused on developing what they had.”
A long-term perspective
Qatar continued to try to naturalise talent in accordance with the new regulations – Uruguayan Sebastian Soria was invited to play in the Qatari League in 2004, and two years later he met the eligibility criteria to be naturalised, and a number of other players from abroad followed similar paths – but a lot of emphasis was placed on the long term and the country’s ability to develop its own players.
The £1 billion Aspire Academy was founded eighteen years ago with the goal of finding and nurturing the best talent in football and other sports – Mutaz Essa Barshim, who won high jump gold at the Tokyo Olympics last year, graduated from it.
The Aspire Academy has been instrumental in the development of the current national team.
The academy employs coaches who have been influenced by Europe’s best. Felix Sanchez worked as a youth coach at Barcelona’s prestigious La Masia academy.
He joined Aspire in 2006 and progressed through the age groups with the same players, eventually becoming manager of Qatar’s Under-19s, U23s, and now senior team.
“Aspire has an important and critical role in Qatar sports,” former Qatar goalkeeper Ahmad Khalil, who starred for the national team when they won the 1992 Gulf Cup, told BBC Sport.
“The players of the national team began as young players with Sanchez in Aspire and they moved with him to the national team when he became Qatar coach.”
The importance of consistency Felix Sanchez led Qatar to Asian Cup victory in 2019.
The consistency and familiarity between coach and players has clearly been beneficial.
Qatar, coached by Sanchez, won the AFC U19 Championship in 2014 with a team made up of Aspire Academy players. Several of those players, as well as coach Sanchez, were on the team that defeated Japan to win the 2019 Asian Cup.
“We all came up together with the same coach,” said Qatar midfielder Assim Madibo at last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup, a tournament the national team had been invited to and where they reached the semi-finals, losing to the United States.
“I’m with this culture from 11 or 12 years old now, so to make it here to the top it’s a big thing for us.”
Gregg Berhalter, USA coach, who had previously visited the Aspire Academy, stated: “They almost operate like a club team, based on what I’ve seen from the inside.
“After their club team games, they all gather at the facility for regeneration. They get to spend time together, watch games, and discuss them.
“It’s a really unique model, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they perform in the World Cup because they really have a plan for how to prepare.”
Local players are being introduced to world-class talent.
In Qatar, big names like Pep Guardiola and Marcel Desailly competed.
It’s great to see a team develop together, but the locally developed players also needed to be exposed to quality opponents on a regular basis, and Qatari football’s significant wealth has helped with that.
Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, and James Rodriguez have all been enticed to play in the Qatar Stars League since the early 2000s.
Facing such opposition benefited not only the local players but also raised the league’s profile, making it more appealing to higher-level players.
Qatar’s national team now hoping to ‘dazzle the world’Qatar hope to at least reach the knockout stage
Qatar’s players have grown together and won together. The foundations put in place almost two decades ago have the team on the right path as they now head into the World Cup as Asian champions and 50th in the Fifa rankings.
“Yes it has involved a lot of money but they still had to make it happen,” added McManus. “They stopped looking for quick fixes and are seeing the results of that now.”
“After winning the Asian Cup, our goal is to improve and develop even more,” Khalil added. It’s a tough group, but anything is possible for us to advance to the next round.
“Football is full of surprises, and we hope to be one of them.” “I expect Qatar’s national team to astound the world.”