Qatar have big ambitions for this year’s World Cup – not just in terms of hosting it successfully but also regarding how far their national team can progress.
This will be their first appearance in the tournament, having qualified by virtue of being hosts, and getting through the group stage is their minimal target.
That may seem a lofty ambition for a country with relatively little football history and a population of Qatari nationals smaller than Leicester.
But they are no pushovers. They are the Asian champions and have spent at least a generation building for this moment, so how have Qatar created a football team they believe is capable of surprising the world and advancing to the knockout stages?
Qatar being awarded the World Cup in 2010 understandably raised eyebrows, not only from an ethical point of view but also from a football one, with the country having only a short football heritage.
They did not play their first official match until 1970, when they lost 2-1 to neighbours Bahrain, and have a small pool of players – the country has a population of 2.9 million but only around 300,000 of those are Qataris.
“Qatar has a strict requirement that even if you are born in the country but your parents aren’t Qatari you have no rights to citizenship,” John McManus, social anthropologist and author of Inside Qatar, told BBC Sport.
“Part of the reason for that is in order to keep the benefits that come with citizenship so generous – the 11% of Qatar nationals get free education, a well-paid job and lots of other big perks. More people getting citizenship would mean that would have to be spread out more.”
Despite the challenges of a limited number of players being available to them, they did produce some notable results over the next few decades.
Qatar reached the final of the 1981 Youth World Championship in Australia, beating Brazil and England along the way, and in the early 1990s they got to the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Olympics before winning the Gulf Cup.
But the drive to really improve the national team so that it could be more competitive globally accelerated at the turn of the century.
Having enjoyed some good results under Brazilian coaches in the previous decades – their Olympics and Gulf Cup success came under Sebastiao Lapola – Qatar looked to see if they could add some South American flair to their playing squad.
Despite their own naturalisation rules being stringent, in 2004 Qatar tried to secure the services of uncapped Brazilian trio Ailton, Dede and Leandro, who were significant players in the German Bundesliga at the time.
The trio had no prior ties to Qatar but the attempt to naturalise them was ultimately blocked by Fifa, who then tightened regulations so that players had to show a “clear connection” to those they were hoping to represent, which included spending a set amount of time in the country before they could be naturalised.
“Fifa toughened the rules up based on what Qatar tried to do and they made it more difficult to import talent,” added McManus.
“They changed tact and focused on developing what they have got.”
A long-term vision
Qatar did still try and naturalise talent in line with the new regulations – Uruguayan Sebastian Soria was invited to play in the Qatari League 2004 and two years later he met the eligibility criteria to be naturalised, and a number of other players from overseas followed similar paths, but a lot of focus was placed on the longer term and the country’s ability to develop their own players.
Eighteen years ago the £1bn Aspire Academy was founded with the aim of finding and nurturing the best talent both in football and in other sports – Mutaz Essa Barshim, who won high jump gold at the Tokyo Olympics last year, graduated from it.
In football, the academy scouts 5,000 11-year-olds in Qatar annually, with the most promising talent given a grant and then spending the next seven years being coached, alongside receiving an education.
The academy utilises 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 moved through the age groups with the same players, going on to manage Qatar’s Under-19s, U23s and now the 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.”
Continuity the key
That continuity and familiarity between coach and players has clearly been important.
In 2014, Qatar – coached by Sanchez – won the AFC U19 Championship with a team comprised of players from the Aspire Academy. Five years later, several of those players and coach Sanchez were part of the side that beat 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.”
USA coach Gregg Berhalter, who had previously visited the Aspire Academy, said: “Having had an inside look on what they do, they almost operate like a club team.
“After their club team games, they all meet up together and do regeneration at the facility there. They get to spend time with each other, look at the games, analyse it.
“It’s a really unique model and I’m excited to see how they play in the World Cup because they really have a blueprint for how to prepare.”
Exposing local players to world-class talent
It is all well and good having a team grow together, but the locally developed players also needed to be exposed to quality opponents on a regular basis, and Qatari football having significant wealth to draw from has helped with that.
Since the early 2000s, Marcel Desailly, Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez and James Rodriguez have all been tempted over to play in the Qatar Stars League.
Facing such opposition was not only beneficial for the local players but also boosted the profile of the league, making it more attractive for higher calibre footballers.
Qatar’s national team now hoping to ‘dazzle the world’
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.”
Khalil added: “After winning the Asian Cup, the aim is for our performances to improve and develop even further. It is quite a tough group but everything is possible for us to progress to the next round.
“Football is filled with surprises and we hope we can surprise. I expect the Qatar national team to dazzle the world.” BBC