How Qatar is trying to build a team to qualify for 2018 World Cup
It's harsh to say Qatar have no football history. There are plenty of nations in Asia with football backgrounds that don't match those in Europe or South America in terms of success, popularity or passion. But the history is there all the same. Not everyone travels the same path.
Awarding a World Cup (in 2022) to a nation that has yet to qualify for it has happened before -- Japan for example. After getting the nod to host alongside South Korea in 1996, Japan went on to qualify for the next tournament four years later. Qatar would love nothing more than to follow in these football footsteps and secure their passage to Russia 2018. It's not a secret that this tiny country is desperate to become a major player in the world of sports, and football especially. Qualifying for the next World Cup is a priority.
For Qatar, it's not just about hosting the biggest tournament on the planet or investing in European clubs like Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona and broadcasting through Al-Jazeera and beIN Sports. It's also about becoming a power in Asian football. Qatar would really prefer a first appearance not to be when they qualify automatically in 2022. That will not be easy since, for the 2014 event, only four Asian teams -- Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia -- made it to Brazil.
In the past, the men from Doha only really came close once, for France '98, when they lost at home to Saudi Arabia knowing a win would have ensured qualification. The campaign to reach 2014 was disappointing. A final-round group with Iran, South Korea and Uzbekistan was tough, and their only wins came against lowly Lebanon. Qatar never seemed to really believe that making it was possible. It ended with a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Uzbekistan.
That was 18 months ago and much has changed since. Qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup, which kicks off this Friday, was straightforward in an admittedly easy group against Bahrain, Malaysia and Yemen, while 2014 was perhaps the best ever year for Qatari football, at least at the national team level.
It started with a triumph at the West Asian Football Federation Championships in January. This regional meet is not the biggest of deals but Qatar, hosting the 10-team tournament, took the trophy with ease, conceding one goal.
But November's Gulf Cup, another biennial tournament for West Asia, is worthy of note. Qatar won that, too, and did so against the odds. The group stage was smooth, but an injury-hit team came back from a goal down against an in-form Oman in the semis to win 3-1. Facing hosts Saudi Arabia in front of a big crowd in Riyadh for the final was a much tougher prospect.
Again Qatar fell behind and again they came back to win. This was impressive enough, but without injured stars such as captain and inspirational defender Bilal Mohammed and winger Khalfan Ibrahim, it was a major achievement "We have big ambitions and this competition is a new step for us in a long-term project," Qatar coach Djamel Belmadi told media after his team arrived in Australia in late December. "All the signs point to Japan, Australia and Korea Republic as favourites, but that doesn't mean we don't have a chance."
Overseas-born players (8): Mohammed Abdullah Tresor, 27, Congo; Mohammed Muntari, 21, Ghana; Karim Boudiaf, 24, France; Ali Asadalla Thaimn 21, Bahrain; Qasem Burhan, 29 , Senegal; Magid Mohamed, 29, Sudan; Ibrahim Majed, 24, Kuwait; Boualel, Khoukhi, 24, Algeria
Qatar-born players (15): Mohamed Musa, 29; Abdelkarim Hassan, 21; Alhamdhi Ali Mukhtar, 22; Abdelaziz Hatim, 25; Bilal Mohammed 29; Khaled Muftah 22; Meshaal Abdulla Abdulla 30; Khalfan Ibrahim, 26; Hasan Al Haydos, 24; Khaled Abdulraaof Al Zrigi, 24; Abdulrahman Abkar Mohammad, 24; Ismail Mohamad, 24; Ahmed Sofyan Abonora, 24; Saad Al Sheeb, 24; Ahmed Mohamed Elsayed, 24
Eight of the Asian Cup squad of 23 were born overseas as the country seeks to solve the problem of how to become a football power with a native population of only 300,000. In the past decade or so, Qatar has naturalised a number of athletes from African countries, especially Kenya, who have helped their new country increase its medal tally at international and continental tournaments. Perhaps the best-known is Saif Saaeed Shaheen, formerly known as Stephen Cherono, who won gold at the 2003 and 2005 World Championships.
In 2004, a trio of Bundesliga-based Brazilian players -- Werder Bremen's Ailton and Bourssia Dortmund duo Dede and Leandro -- were persuaded to play for Qatar despite having no connections to the country.
"Money is not the decisive factor here, as I earn good money at Werder Bremen," Ailton, who was reportedly offered $1 million to play for Qatar, said. "If Brazil ignores me for 2006 then I have to find another way to get there."
Dede added: "I finally get a chance to be a national team player. I didn't get a chance in Brazil, or in Germany either. Maybe I will be at the 2006 World Cup with Qatar."
There was widespread anger in Germany about the matter, and ultimately none of the trio was able to fulfil the dream as FIFA's emergency committee changed its rules so that players would have to have lived in the country for at least two years or have a parent or grandparent who was born there. In 2008, FIFA extended the time a player must play in the country before being naturalised to five years.
Now, Qatar's imports come from much closer to home -- Algeria, Kuwait and Sudan. Then there's the massive Aspire Academy and its Aspire Football Dreams program. According to a 2014 New York Times article, this organisation has scouted 3.5 million youngsters from three continents in the past seven years, giving young talent from (usually poor) countries the chance to train with good coaches and great facilities.
Critics say they are stealing talent from poorer rivals with the aim of dressing the best in those maroon shirts for a future tournament -- 2022, for example. This was vehemently denied to the same newspaper by Andreas Bleicher, the director of the programme. Qatar say that they are providing top-class facilities for underprivileged youngsters who can then go home and use what they have learned to make a difference. Time will tell.
Qatar's history may not impress the big boys of Europe and South America, but the future is starting to look pretty bright.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.