SPOTLIGHT: Will Qatar make meaning of the host status?

SPOTLIGHT: Will Qatar make meaning of the host status?

Qatar is the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first in the competition to be hosted in the Middle East and also the first to be hosted in November/December with the traditional June/July being unfavourable for a competition of the nature of football. Two feasibility studies in 2014 and 2015 by FIFA proved that the tournament could not be hosted in its traditional months thus the need to shift to its current time. Though that was resisted by the Union of European Football Associations, FIFA stood still and the oil-rich country will put its name in the history books as the host of the special edition of the quadrennial tournament.

That decision granted the West Asian nation the opportunity to play in the tournament for the first time. Qatar has been present at continental competitions regularly but often does not make the grades at the qualifications for the World Cup. A decision to hand a team that has never participated in the World Cup before the right to host was not a good deal to many people.

Qatar, however, was ready to change the story of many people writing them off as a non-football nation. Aside from the beautiful stadiums that would host the tournaments, the team has been preparing very well for the tournament.

Coached by Spaniard Felix Sanchez, The Maroon has been nothing progressive. They began their road to the tournament with the conquest of Asia in 2019 when they beat Japan 3-1 to clinch the continental honour for the first time in their history. They did so on sworn rivals, UAE’s home soil. The feat was by no means a small achievement nor glory of chance. It was one that was based on plan and activity. They dispatched off Lebanon 2-0, North Korea 0-6 and Saudi Arabia 2-0 to top Group E. Iraq 1-0, South Korea 1-0 and the United Arab Emirates 4-0 were the next victims of a team on a mission to prove a point.

They were ruthless in front of goal and mean in defence, a feat that saw them concede just a single goal in the tournament and scored 19, the tournament’s highest. The squad was third youngest at the tournament with an average age of 24.7 years. The majority of the team played under Felix Sanchez at the youth level.

Many of the players who were part of that squad are still with the team and will be key to Sanchez’s success at the tournament.

Success in 2019 is no guarantee of the same in 2022 but the team which now has an average age of 26.8 years will still be reliable and now will go into the competition with better experience and confidence as the reigning AFC champions.

Qatar was exempted from qualification due to its host status but was so it did not navigate the same qualification path as all the other 31 teams. However, in the 2021 Arab Cup hosted by them, the team recorded a perfect win rate in the group stages but this time scored fewer goals (6) than they did two years ago in the AFC Cup. They also conceded one goal in the group stages as against null in 2019. After putting five past UAE in the first knockout round, Qatar succumbed to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of a more established football nation in Algeria. That was by no means to mean the end as they reorganized and held Egypt to a goalless draw before winning 5-4 on penalties in the third-place playoff.

Qatar participated in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup as a guest and also made a statement at the tournament. After drawing their opening match 3-3 with Panama, Qatar put four past Grenada without a reply and two past Honduras without a reply to top the group. El Salvador was the next victim of the team’s brutality in front of goal with Qatar securing a 3-2 win to set up a date with eventual winners the United States who they lost to by a lone goal.

They played eight matches in the dual World Cup-Asian Cup qualifiers but were only considered for the latter. It ended the qualifiers with seven wins and one draw, scored 18 goals and conceded just one. Outside of that, the team has been active with friendly games in 2022 as part of preparations for the tournament. Some of those games are unofficial as they are not FIFA-sanctioned matches but they nonetheless gave the team some exposure.

In seven official friendly matches, they won two, drew four and lost one (2-0) against Canada. Ghana and Bulgaria were the victims, each suffering a 2-1 defeat. They drew with Slovenia (0-0), Morocco (2-2), Jamaica (1-1) and Chile (2-2). They will take on Guatemala in the third week of October; Panama and Nicaragua in the second week of November with the last coming just a week before kick-off.

Players

Qatar does not have very well-known players in their ranks and all the players that have been assembled recently play in the Qatar Stars League. Top stars such Almoez Ali, Hassan al Haydos and Akram Afif will all be looking to make a statement at the tournament. The trio has been scoring goals for the Maroon in the last few years.

Bassam al Rawi, Boualem Khoukhi and Mohammed Waad Al Bayati are three of the top central defenders in the league as per data from Footballdatabase. That is complimented by Mohamed Alaadin, Ismail Mohamed and Sultan Al Brake who could all be top defensive options for Sanchez. The midfield department is not short of quality either as Karim Boudiaf, Abdulaziz Hatem and Assim Madebo as well as Osman Al Tahir all are in line to feature.

Goal scoring has been one of Qatar’s lethal weapons in their recent upsurge in performance and you can count on the quality of Almoez Ali, Hassan Al Haydos, Ahmed Alaadin, Homam Ahmed and Akram Afif to at least cause problems for any team on any day.

They still have Salah Zakaria, Yousef Hassan and Meshaal Barsham to compete with Saad Al Sheeb for the starting role in between the sticks.

Coach and Playing Style

Felix Sanchez has worked with almost all the players at the youth level and has been in charge of the team since 2017. He prefers to sacrifice possession to defend deep. That was their key weapon in the run to the 2019 AFC Cup. They are always compact defensively and though the meanest in their defence has been obliterated in recent times, they still boast of a good record in defence. They claimed two clean sheets in seven of their official friendly matches in 2022. They have been ruthless in attack to say the least.

In all the qualifying matches for the 2023 AFC Cup, they scored a staggering 18 goals and conceded just one. In the seven friendlies in 2022, they scored 9, that is in 5 of the matches, only failing to score against Canada(2-0) and Slovenia (0-0). Also, once they get the ball, they work to keep it and build slowly. That has been their operational methods in the past few years of success.

Sanchez has a 51.8% win rate with the team after winning 43 of the 83 matches played under his watch. He drew 16 of those and lost 24.

Opposition

Felix Sanchez will lead his charges against Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands, three nations that have experienced the World Cup on multiple occassions. Ecuador will be making their fourth appearance at the tournament, a return to the global stage after missing out in 2018. Though not a superpower, they have at least managed to go beyond the group stages once in 2006 and would want to repeat that success or even go better in Qatar.

The Netherlands just like Ecuador are returning after mysteriously failing to qualify for Russia 2018. They, however, are a team full of talent and would trust themselves to go deep this year. Their best has been runners-up on three occassions, most recently in 2010 and would be a fearsome force despite many of their current players not having World Cup experience.

Senegal, the only country in the group to have played in Russia 2018 albeit a group stage exit after losing out to Japan on fair play. They have since gone on to become African champions and are heading to the tournament as one of the strong sides.

Qatar has met Ecuador on three occassions, first in 1996 (twice) and recently in 2018. The Maroon won one, drew one and lost the other. A 1-1 draw on February 18, 1996 was followed by a 2-1 reverse a week later. However, the last meeting between them in 2018 saw the Maroon put four past their European counterparts while conceding three. They will thus be playing a fairly familiar opponent in the opening match but would be up against two new faces in the Netherlands and Senegal.

Prediction: Qatar to miss out on passage to the next round with a third-place finish behind the Netherlands and Senegal.

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