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Qatar have big ambitions for this year’s World Cup – not only in terms of hosting a successful event, but also in terms of advancing their national team.
This will be their first appearance in the tournament, having qualified as hosts, and passing the group stage is their minimum goal.
That might seem like a lofty ambition for a country with relatively little footballing history and a smaller population of Qatari nationals than Leicester.
But these are not children’s games. They are Asian champions and have spent at least a generation building for this moment, so how did Qatar create a football team that they believe is capable of surprising the world and qualifying for the round of 16?
Work begins long before World Cup bid
The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in 2010 naturally raised eyebrows, not only from an ethical but also a footballing perspective, as the country has only a short footballing heritage.
They didn’t play their first official game until 1970, when they lost 2-1 to neighbors Bahrain and have a small squad of players – the country has a population of 2.9 million, but alone 300,000 of them are Qataris.
“Qatar has a strict requirement that even if you were born in the country but your parents are not Qatari, you have no citizenship rights,” said John McManus, social anthropologist and author of Inside Qatar, at BBC Sports.
“Part of this is because of the concern to keep the benefits of citizenship so generous – the 11% of Qatari nationals enjoy free education, well-paying jobs and many other important benefits. More people would get citizenship would mean that you would have to spread out more.”
Despite the challenges of a limited number of players at their disposal, they produced notable results over the next few decades.
Qatar reached the final of the 1981 World Youth Championship in Australia, beating Brazil and England along the way, and in the early 1990s reached the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Olympics before to win the Gulf Cup.
But the desire to really improve the national team so that it could be more competitive on a global scale accelerated at the turn of the century.
After doing well under Brazilian coaches in previous decades – their Olympics and Gulf Cup success came under Sebastiao Lapola – Qatar looked to see if they could add a southern touch American to his team of players.
Although its own naturalization rules are strict, Qatar tried in 2004 to secure the services of the uncapped Brazilian trio Ailton, Dede and Leandro, who were major players in the German Bundesliga at the time.
The trio had no previous ties to Qatar, but the attempt to naturalize them was eventually blocked by Fifa, who then tightened regulations so players had to show a ‘clear connection’ to those they hoped to represent , which included spending a fixed amount of time in the country before being able to be naturalized.
“Fifa toughened up the rules based on what Qatar tried to do and they made it harder to import talent,” McManus added.
“They changed tact and focused on developing what they had.”
A long-term vision
Qatar still tried to naturalize talent under new regulations – Uruguayan Sebastian Soria was invited to play in the 2004 Qatari League and two years later met the eligibility criteria to be naturalized, and a number of other overseas players have followed similar paths. , but the emphasis was on the long term and on the country’s ability to develop its own players.
Eighteen years ago, the £1billion Aspire Academy was founded with the aim of finding and nurturing the best talent in football and other sports – Mutaz Essa Barshimwho won gold in the high jump at the Tokyo Olympics last year, is a graduate.
In football, the academy recruits 5,000 11-year-olds from Qatar each year, with the most promising talents receiving a scholarship and then spending the next seven years training, in addition to receiving an education.
The academy uses coaches who have been influenced by the best in Europe. Felix Sanchez was a youth coach at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
He was employed by Aspire in 2006 and went through the age groups with the same players, then managed the Under-19s, Qatar Under-23s and now the senior team.
“Aspire has an important and critical role in Qatari sports,” former Qatari goalkeeper Ahmad Khalil, who played for the national team when they won the Gulf Cup in 1992, told BBC Sport. .
“The national team players started as young players with Sanchez in Aspire and they joined the national team with him when he became Qatar coach.”
Continuity the key
This continuity and familiarity between coach and players has clearly been important.
In 2014, Qatar – coached by Sanchez – won the AFC U19 Championship with a squad made up of Aspire Academy players. Five years later, several of these players and coach Sanchez were part of the team that beat Japan to win Asian Cup 2019.
“We all came with the same coach,” Qatar midfielder Assim Madibo said at last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup, a tournament the national team was invited to and where they reached the semi-finals, losing to the United States.
“I’ve been with this culture for 11 or 12 years now, so to get to the top is a big thing for us.”
USA coach Gregg Berhalter, who had previously visited Aspire Academy, said: “Having seen what they do from the inside, they operate almost like a club team.
“After their club team games, they all get together and regenerate in the facility there. They hang out with each other, watch the games, analyze them.
“It’s a really unique model and I’m excited to see how they play in the World Cup because they really have a plan to prepare for.”
Exposing local players to world-class talent
It’s all well and good to have a squad growing together, but homegrown players also needed regular exposure to quality opponents, and Qatari football with significant wealth to draw on helped that.
Since the early 2000s, Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez and James Rodriguez have all been tempted to play in the Qatar Stars League.
Facing such opposition has not only been beneficial for homegrown players, but has also raised the league’s profile, making it more attractive to high-calibre footballers.
Qatar national team now hope to ‘dazzle the world’
Qatar players have grown together and won together. The foundations laid nearly two decades ago put the team on the right path as they now head to the World Cup as Asian champions and 50th in the Fifa rankings.
“Yeah, it involved a lot of money, but they still had to get there,” McManus added. “They stopped looking for quick fixes and are seeing the results now.”
Khalil added: “After winning the Asian Cup, the goal is for our performance to improve and develop even more. It’s quite a tough group but everything is possible for us to advance to the next round.
“Football is full of surprises and we hope we can surprise. I expect the Qatar national team to dazzle the world.”
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