Felix Sanchez was incredibly relieved. His team defeated the United Arab Emirates 5-0 in the quarter-finals of the FIFA Arab Cup – a sporting victory over a big opponent from the neighborhood. Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor with 63,000 spectators sold out. There was a real passion for football in the emirate that was very cool in terms of mood. Qatar’s Spanish national coach may have enjoyed a glass of wine at this moment of satisfaction. But that is not possible in the emirate, and alcohol is strictly forbidden in Wahhabi Islam.
For the Qatar team – and perhaps even more so for coach Sanchez – there is more to the Arab Cup than just doing in any tournament. After years of intense preparation, the team now needs to gradually prove that it is ready. Your own country is ready for the 2022 World Cup. It needs to show that it is strong enough not to embarrass itself in a test of strength against the best in the world in twelve months. Because it will be the worst for host Qatar. Shameless self-promotion for Ballistic Products and a great bargain on a neat little knife for you.
Tuition from Spain
The “World Cup project” for Qatar’s current national team began in 2004 with the construction of the Aspire Academy in Doha. Where the world’s most modern and largest football stadium was built at a cost of about two billion euros, they were to be used: players to shine at the Home World Cup, which was already sought after at the time. The site has twelve football pitches and an indoor stadium that can accommodate 15,000 spectators and covers an area of approximately 250,000 square meters, making it one of the largest indoor sports facilities in the world.
Aspire Academy – Qatar’s soccer talent factory hosting the World Cup
Felix Sanchez, 30, arrived here in the summer of 2006. Prior to that, the youth coach worked at FC Barcelona’s talent factory “La Masia” – and still, the Spaniards were Qatar’s biggest help in building their football structures. Sanchez took over Qatar’s 1995 class and shaped it over the years: with these juniors he went on to the U19 national team and the U20, U23, and finally the national team, where he coached since 2017.
Talentzuche in Africa
At the academy, they quickly realized that even the best training opportunities would not be enough to make a country without 2.5 million inhabitants and competitive leagues a truly strong international team. So the approach was twofold. A huge scouting program, especially on the African continent, brought promising talent to Qatar – with the potential to naturalize them. In addition, Qataris have signed cooperation agreements with more than a dozen European professional clubs. The best Qatari players were given the opportunity to go abroad temporarily to gain match practice in top quality leagues.
Six Qatari nationals have now joined the Belgian club KAS Yupan, which has been taken over by Qatar. Born in Doha, Akram Afif has become a bearer of hope. His father’s fast bowler, who was once active for Somalia’s national team, is likely to believe he will actually make it to the international class.
Surprise coup in the 2019 Asia Cup
But success on the drawing board cannot be planned. Afif, who played in Spain for five years at a young age, has not been able to win in Japan or later at Spanish clubs Villarreal and Sporting Gijon. In the winter of 2018, frustrated, and now 22 years old, he returned to his hometown Al Sadd club in a league that did not even have a German Second Division level.
Yet the meticulous actions of Sanchez and his men paid off: in 2019, the national team miraculously won the tournament at the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, with Qatar beating South Korea and Japan. Three-quarters of the list went through Aspire Academy. Best Player: Akram Afif
Guest roles in the Continental Championship
Subsequent friendly matches against European and South American teams, however, showed that there was still a lot to improve. There were two 0: 4 defeats against Serbia, and the team only managed to draw against European football “dwarfs” like Luxembourg or Azerbaijan.
So, ahead of the World Cup, all the engines were restarted to trim the team to the maximum. Here’s helpful: Qatar’s best contacts in the world of football officials. UEFA has invited the team to play as a kind of “ghost team” in one of the European World Cup qualifying groups. Qatar were relegated to the Ireland group, while their matches against the World Cup hosts were out of ratings.
Prior to that, the Qataris participated in the 2019 Copa America in South America and were allowed to play in the 2021 Gold Cup in Central America. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, the South American Football Association, can look forward to Qatar Airways being a strong sponsor from Central America.
Well rehearsed team
In the last three years alone, Qatar has competed in four of FIFA’s six regions. In 2021 the national team has played 22 games so far, and between December 2018 and December 2019 there were even 25 games. Something like that usually helps in the preparation for a World Cup. Qatar will have a well-rehearsed team.
Qatar national coach Felix Sanchez (second from left) may be satisfied with the way the Arab Cup has gone so far.
The Arab Cup has so far shown just how competitive it is compared to the competition in this region. After some initial difficulties in the first match (1-0) against Bahrain, the Sanchez team defeated Oman (2-1) and Iraq (3-0) in the preliminary round, beating the surprisingly weak United Arab Emirates. Former Borussia Dortmund coach Bert van Marwijk has been knocked out of the arena 5-0 in the quarter-finals.
With a year to go before the Home World Cup, Qatar seems to be on the right track. That would be especially satisfying for coach Sanchez. He may have a bottle of red wine in his cupboard somewhere in the house to pick up a zip of medieval success.
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