Ghost team Qatar have spooked many a supposed stronger country down the years

The influence of former Barcelona youth coach Félix Sánchez has been key to their success

Qatar manager Felix Sanchez celebrates his side’s win in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final over Japan with  Abdelaziz Hatim, Hasan Al Haydos and Saad Al Sheeb at Zayed Sports City Stadium  in Abu Dhabi. Photograph: Francois Nel/Getty Images

Qatar manager Felix Sanchez celebrates his side’s win in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final over Japan with Abdelaziz Hatim, Hasan Al Haydos and Saad Al Sheeb at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. Photograph: Francois Nel/Getty Images

 

When Qatar successfully bid to host the 2022 World Cup their official slogan was “Expect Amazing”. Perhaps understandably the marketing around the Maroons first visit to Ireland was more understated.

Initially the FAI ran a “Limited Tickets Available – Don’t Miss Out” campaign. Of course tickets for every event are, by definition, limited but this appeared an ambitious strapline for a match that seemed likely to stretch to breaking point the theory that with Covid restrictions finally lifted there is a massive pent-up public demand to attend live events.

Appearing to belatedly remember that they were established in 1921 the FAI sensibly developed a “Centenary Special” offer with ticket prices starting at €20 for adults and €10 for children. But even allowing for the natural excitement of Irish supporters seeing their side face a team from the Middle East other than Oman it is a testament to the remarkable connection that Stephen Kenny and his players have established with the general public in the face of poor results that the FAI is likely to have to unexpectedly dust down their ‘Sold Out’ signs for a friendly match against Qatar on a Tuesday night in October.

Qatar’s trip to Dublin is part of one of the busiest schedules in international football that will see them play a minimum of 21 matches in 2021. Qatar qualified for the 2022 World Cup nearly 11 years ago in December 2010 when they were named as hosts. Whilst most host nations are delighted to avoid qualifying altogether, Qatar have enthusiastically participated in it on two different continents.

As well as competing as a guest team in European qualifying Qatar also played in Asian qualifying up to the second round. Qatar moved federations again to compete in the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup where they were beaten in the semi-finals by hosts and eventual winners USA and would also have competed in the Copa America in June had the tournament dates not been changed.

While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that practice makes perfect Qatar’s recent performances has seen them rise to 43rd in the Fifa rankings, seven places above Ireland. And despite the disadvantage of playing their ‘home’ matches in Hungary, Qatar are also ahead of Ireland in the Group A table following an excellent international window in March when they beat both Luxembourg (1-0) and Azerbaijan (2-1) before drawing 1-1 with Stephen Kenny’s team. So impressive is the form of the Group A ‘ghost’ team Ireland could yet end up finishing their five-team group in sixth place.

So what explains this recent dramatic improvement? For one thing Qatar were never quite the no hopers they were often portrayed to be. In 1981 Qatar reached the final of the Fifa Youth World Cup, beating Brazil 3-2 in the quarter-final and England 2-1 in the semi-final and they have also won the Gulf Cup three times.

However, much of the credit must go to former Barcelona youth coach Félix Sánchez who had managed Qatar since 2017 and will soon become the longest serving coach ever in a country that previously disposed of 29 coaches in 30 years, including Scottish great Dave Mackay who took charge briefly in the mid-90s.

Qatar’s Mohamed Muntari celebrates scoring against the Republic of Ireland during the friendly game at the Nagyerdei Stadion in Debrecen, Hungary in March. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Qatar’s Mohamed Muntari celebrates scoring against the Republic of Ireland during the friendly game at the Nagyerdei Stadion in Debrecen, Hungary in March. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Before he took charge of the senior team Sánchez worked with Qatar’s age group teams, winning the under-19 Asian Championship in 2014. Exceptional talents from that side such as Almoez Ali, Akram Afif and Tarek Salman were quickly promoted to the senior team alongside Sánchez and together they provided Qatar’s greatest ever moment by winning the 2019 Asian Cup in style scoring 19 goals and only conceded one.

The most dramatic day in their history involved beating Japan 3-1 in the final only hours after the Asian Football Federation dismissed a protest by tournament hosts the United Arab Emirates that both Almoez Ali and Bassam Al-Rawi were ineligible to play for Qatar.

Cleared to play in the final Ali opened the scoring with a brilliant bicycle kick to set a new tournament record of nine goals. Seventy per cent of the squad that won the Asian Cup were developed at the Aspire Academy in Doha opened in 2004 at a cost of $1.3 billion, an extraordinary investment even for a state that is per capita probably the richest in the world. Other key players have been naturalised including Ghana-born Mohammed Muntari, who scored Qatar’s equaliser against Ireland in March.

The visitors’ squad is entirely home based, competing in the somewhat optimistically entitled ‘Qatar Stars League’ that provides an irresistible opportunity for veteran Premier League players to simultaneously top up both their pension pots and their sun tans. Toby Alderweireld (Al Duhail) and Santi Cazorla (Al Sadd) were joined recently by James Rodríguez who moved to Al Rayyan from Everton.

Despite being the Toffees highest paid player ever (on £220,000 per week) Rodriguez departure seemed inevitable since August when he asked his Twitch followers, “I don’t even know who Everton is playing, can you please tell me?”

The most famous player to appear in the league remains Pep Guardiola whose spell at Al Ahli between 2003 and 2005 made an unwelcome recent appearance in the ‘Pandora Papers’ amid allegations that his wages were deposited in an undeclared offshore bank account in Andorra to avoid paying tax.

A wiser approach to personal finances was taken by Guardiola’s former teammate Xavi Hernandez who in 2017 won a lottery being run by a Doha bank, later turning up in torn denim shorts to collect his (tax free) prize in the form of a giant oversize cheque only ever awarded to competition winners. Hernandez has been most successful import into Qatar but his trophy laden six-year spell as player and now manager of reigning champions Al-Sadd is expected to end imminently, with him replacing Ronald Koeman as manager of Barcelona.

Few Qataris have made the return journey to play in Europe with the notable exception of Akram Afif, who featured in La Liga while on loan at Sporting Gijón in 2016. However, a massive off-field influence is exerted with Qatar Airlines having sponsored a number of clubs including Barcelona. In 2011 Qatar Sports Investments went one step further and purchased Paris Saint-Germain.

Qatar successfully hosted the 2019 Fifa World Club Championship won by Liverpool and next November will become the first country since Italy in 1934 to host the World Cup Finals without ever having competed in them. They should avoid the fate of South Africa in 2010 who remain the only host nation to fail to get out of their group. However, should their recent dramatic improvement enable Qatar to progress any further than that then they really will have fulfilled their promise to amaze.

– James McDermott is a UCD law lecturer and a fervent soccer supporter.

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