So ends the 2018 World Cup - arguably the best World Cup to ever take place that will live long in the memory, much to the delight of host nation Russia. However, eyes will turn to the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, as the Qataris will break with tradition by hosting the competition in the winter from November to December.
The concerns about holding the World Cup are well known: disrupting the schedules of Europe’s domestic leagues, their human rights record, the treatment of migrants building the stadiums under their much-maligned kafala system and political spats with their neighbours.
But few have talked about the fortunes of Qatar's national team. The makeup of the national team under manager Felix Sanchez Bas is mainly from Qatar’s domestic clubs.
Lack of top club experience
Several players have experience of playing in the Asian Champions League, Asia’s premier club competition, but it pales compared to some of their illustrious Asian opponents (let alone most of the World Cup participants this summer) that have featured in the UEFA Champions League.
Some observers have predicted Qatar won’t even get out of the group stages in 2022, let alone win a game or a point, which would make them the worst performing World Cup hosts since the tournament began in 1930.
Qatar may not be a country with a football history but there are reasons to believe the national team can silence the doubters like Russia did in this year’s World Cup.
One key area is infrastructure, primarily the construction of the Aspire Academy in 2004, aiming to develop Qatari talent in sports with notable results.
Back in 2014, Qatar won the U19 Asian Championships, importantly resulting in several making the jump to the senior team. Three notable players have stood out; midfielder Ahmed Al Saadi, striker Almoez Ali and winger Akram Afif. The latter becoming the first player to move to Spain, as he signed for Villarreal in 2016, though he didn’t play a single game for the Yellow Submarine and has been loaned out three times. Even the coach of the national team coached at Aspire.
National teams outside Europe, notably those in Africa and the Middle East, don’t have the strongest of domestic leagues. So it helps when their players move to European leagues, which strengthens the national team.
What Aspire decided to do was buy European clubs such as Belgian club KAS Eupen in 2012 and Spain’s Cultural Leonesa in 2015. As a result, Aspire can get Qataris to play in a European league and gain experience. Afif played for Eupen on loan before moving again on loan to Al Sadd of Qatar.
But Europe’s lower leagues and the Qatari top flight won’t be an indicator of where Qatar’s national side are at.
Chance to rebuild at the Asian Games
The last few years haven’t been plain sailing for Qatar and the final group stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers was a chastening experience. They finished bottom in a group containing Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, and Syria.
However, this season is an excellent chance to test the national side in competitive football: starting with the Asian Games next month.
Only three players from the squad can be over 23 so it’s a chance for young Qatari talent to make a name for themselves and be part of the senior team come 2022. Winning a medal would be a big confidence booster. However, the big test for Qatar will be the 2019 Asian Cup in January, which is to be held in the United Arab Emirates.
The tournament is Asia’s showpiece event where the best countries will battle it out for regional supremacy. Qatar did not do well in the 2015 edition which took place in Australia as they lost all their games.
Fate has shined on the Maroons as they are in a favourable group with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. The format of 24 teams in six groups, just like in Euro 2016, means a solitary win could be enough to progress to the knockout stages.
Repeating or bettering their best finish in the Asian Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in 2011, would be a confidence booster to the national team. Crashing out the group stages or a heavy defeat to an established Asian Football side in the last 16 might stunt progress and morale.
The road to preparing the Qatari national team for the 2022 World Cup will be long and tough. Whether it’ll be successful remains to be seen.
Does Qatar stand any chance at the 2022 World Cup? Let us know in the comments below.