When Qatar hit rock bottom, it might have been an irrelevant detail. Until, a few weeks in 2010 after they reached their lowest world ranking of 113th, they were awarded the 2022 World Cup. If much of the focus in the subsequent 12 years has concerned the off-field issues that rendered Qatar a controversial choice as hosts, on the pitch they risked embarrassment.
When they kick off against Ecuador on Sunday, it is with an altogether better pedigree. Qatar have won their last five games, albeit against teams who have not qualified for the World Cup. For the first time, they won the Asian Cup in 2019. They were Gold Cup semi-finalists in 2021. As the Qatari league paused in September, they have had longer to prepare than anyone else. Some of it has been spent at a training camp in Marbella. Some of their summer involved playing friendlies against European club sides.
“Qatar go into this tournament with an organised and well-drilled squad who are familiar with the stadiums, heat and landscape of the country,” noted Neil McGuinness, who previously worked for the Qatar FA and Aspire Academy on the identification and selection of players ahead of the World Cup.
If identification has taken in various facets – defenders Ro-Ro and Boualem Khoukhi were born in Portugal and Algeria respectively, midfielder Karim Boudiaf in France – it is nonetheless the case that much of this squad have been together for years and that there is a Qatari core. A policy of naturalising players was contentious but there is a greater homegrown element to this squad than some in recent years.
McGuinness, who was responsible for signing Virgil van Dijk for Celtic, identifies the 2019 Asian Footballer of the Year Akram Afif as Qatar’s best technical talent. “He can play as an attacking midfielder, usually coming in off the left or also as part of a front two as a slightly deeper striker,” he explained. “He likes to play off the line and draw players in before skipping away from them and looks to get strikes off with his right foot. Qatar will need him at his best to stand a chance of getting out of the group.”
The Doha-born captain Hassan Al-Haydos is, with 169 appearances, Qatar’s most-capped player and third only to Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Guardado among all players in the tournament. McGuinness added: “He has a great eye for a killer pass. He is calm on the ball and dangerous in the final third. He will play mostly off the right-hand side but he is versatile.”
The striker Almoez Ali, who was born in Sudan but raised in Qatar, is their joint record scorer with 42 goals, and McGuinness feels he has the pace and directness to be a threat. “While not the most technical, he is effective and has a very good goals-to-games ratio for the national team,” he said.
He will spearhead the team in coach Felix Sanchez’s formation: 3-5-2 with the ball, 5-3-2 without it. “These styles of play have been coached into the group for years,” McGuinness said. “Qatar like to have the added protection across the back centrally with extra numbers, and this then allows them to utilise the wing backs who are a key element to their style of play when they are counter-attacking.”
His concern is whether Sanchez’s high-pressing tactics could backfire against teams of the calibre of Senegal and the Netherlands. “Qatar have been good at capitalising on that over the years, but as you increase the quality of opposition they run a real risk of being exposed if they over-commit,” he said.
Sanchez, a former Barcelona youth coach, is another import who has had staying power. He moved to Qatar in 2006 and McGuinness, now director of player recruitment at Major League Soccer side Columbus Crew, said: “Felix has been embedded in Qatari culture for years working with the squad. He has built a strong cultural unit with the national team and has given players trust to grow in his system. He will know the squad limitations but also how to make them tick as this group has been together for a long time.
“Felix is a quiet guy on the outside but focused and ambitious on the inside. This is his biggest test yet as national team coach and the culmination of the project they have been building towards for so long.”
The on-field aim will be respectability. Qatar’s most winnable match comes first. “The best scenario I can see is them maybe getting something from the Ecuador game,” McGuinness added. “Overall they will not look out of place but, given the quality of the opponent, I don’t see them progressing into the knockout stages.”
That feels logical, as Qatar’s world ranking peaked at 42nd last year and they have still never qualified for a World Cup. But the class of 2022 should fare better on the global stage than the team of 2010 would have done.