For the first time ever, Qatar has been registered in the Book of Continental Champions after beating Japan in the 2019 Asian Cup final.
A nation of 313,000 citizens and 2.3 million expatriates, Qatar has been known more for its vast gas reserves than prowess in sports. Yes, they are going to host the next FIFA World Cup in November-December 2022 but nobody is expecting them to challenge the traditional powerhouses – France, Brazil, Nigeria (excuse you?), Germany.
At an average age of twenty-five years and nine months, Felix Sanchez’s team look ready to take on the world. They deployed a footballing style that has drawn comparisons with high-press European teams, leading to some now referencing Sanchez as the Asian Guardiola. When the World Cup comes around, many of the players who made this happen will be averaging 28, boasting tournament-winning experience that could see them go as far as Russia did in 2018.
Is it too early to make predictions?
Qatar produced a feat many (except Xavi Hernandez) could not have seen coming. The country is embroiled in a diplomatic face-off with a number of Arab countries, including Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia. The latter was one of six teams defeated by Qatar en route the final, a waltzing run in which they scored nineteen goals and conceded just one. The tournament was hosted by United Arab Emirates, another regional heavyweight (in economic terms), showing that Qatar are able to hold their own among the top of their peers.
And then, they beat Japan, arguably the most European side in the Asian Cup. The victory was no fluke, with two well taken goals that showcase a maturity the global elite should take note of when hostilities kick off in three dozen months time. How have they done this?
By GDP per capita, Qatari are the most comfortable citizens in the world, so you may say they have money to throw around. In pejorative terms usually employed on Manchester City and PSG (both bankrolled by Emirati from the Middle East), they have ‘bought’ the Asian Cup.
But like the trolled European giants, Qatar haven’t become champions simply by throwing money at their poor footballing history. The result of Friday is a product of what they have been building for at least a decade. At least since Felix Sanchez left his role as a Barcelona youth coach, relocating to Qatar in 2006 under the employ of the Aspire Academy.
Eight years after arriving, he led Qatar’s under-19 side to win the 2014 AFC Under-19 championship, the country’s first title in the category, and its first ever in international football. Seven players from that victorious squad were part of this year’s all-conquering team, including the Sudanese-born top-scoring record-breaker Almoez Ali. The record Ali broke in this tournament was set the year he was born.
9 – Almoez Ali has just broken the record for the most goals ever scored by a single player at an Asian Cup tournament (9), one more than Ali Daei who also scored eight for Iran in the 1996 edition. Overhead. #AsianCupFinal #AsianCup2019 pic.twitter.com/3dgjDdIYJy
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 1, 2019
Ali and Akram Afif, who provided Ali’s assist for a spectacular goal in the final as well as a goal-scorer himself, scored at almost every stage of that 2014 tournament (Afif scored the only goal in the final against North Korea). They are 22 years old and are already players to watch ahead of 2022.
Qatar’s success is no spurt. In fact, pundits should not be too stunned. Success, always and everywhere, is the product of preparation, progress, a structured process and good old hard work. Qatar have combined all four over the years, 2019 becoming the first bumper harvest.
They will now participate in the 2021 Confederations Cup, not through the easy pass that being host nation affords but as proud, unbeaten Champions of the Asian region. Expect them to get even better over the next two years (now, this is where the money comes in, eh?) in preparation for that and, of course, The Big One.
Heavyweights – Nigeria and others – take note.
Opinions: Part formed, Part undergoing reform