This feature on the Qatar 2022 World Cup first appeared in the November 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe today and get your first five magazines for just £5!
The sandals rained down on Qatar striker Almoez Ali, bringing his impromptu, hip-swinging celebration to an abrupt halt. Ali had just scored the most important goal of his career to put Qatar 2-0 up against the hosts, the United Arab Emirates, in the 2019 Asian Cup semi-final. Home fans in Dubai didn’t share his glee, and responded by angrily flinging their footwear in his direction.
While Qatar won the tournament a few days later, that semi-final humbling – it ended 4-0 – was, for many Qataris, sweeter than the 3-1 win over Japan in the final, after 20 months of geopolitical tension between Qatar and their Gulf neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. In June 2017, diplomatic ties were severed, flights between the countries cancelled, citizens expelled. It was ugly, and remains so.
For those familiar with Qatar only as a football financial powerhouse, it might be difficult to imagine the country that has bankrolled Paris Saint-Germain to the tune of billions as an underdog. However, playing at a tournament as a regional pariah, with your supporters unable to attend and the national anthem jeered ahead of every match... well, suffice it to say, the odds were stacked against them.
Although that triumph was certainly no fairy tale, it was nonetheless a remarkable achievement for Felix Sanchez Bas and his players, who were unfancied outsiders at best ahead of the Asian Cup.
“The semi-final was the most difficult game I’ve faced in my career,” coach Sanchez tells FourFourTwo today. “The political issues made it more sensitive, but during the whole tournament we always tried to keep the players’ focus on their football. They really responded to that, showed professionalism, and ultimately we were able to celebrate the country’s biggest ever sporting achievement.”
That is no understatement. While the world champion high-jumper Mutaz Barshim commands massive respect in his homeland, Qatar is football-obsessed, as are all countries in the region. Sanchez’s team were welcomed back as heroes.
Now there’s a bigger matter at stake. Can the Maroons sustain that momentum at their home World Cup in 2022?
Bad blood and brown envelopes
It’s now almost 10 years since Qatar was awarded World Cup hosting rights, to worldwide derision. A Sunday Times exposé from March 2019 reported that the Gulf nation had secretly offered $400 million to FIFA three weeks before the decision, while state-controlled broadcaster Al Jazeera had also pledged an eye-watering initial payment of $100m for a successful vote.
The subsequent investigations into FIFA have dogged Qatar for the past decade, not to mention the continued stories that report human rights violations of the workers building its tournament stadia. Qatar 2022 is under the microscope like no other World Cup ever held.
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But it will be held. Despite continued opposition by many, the Middle East’s first World Cup will take place in the November and December of 2022. For Qatar, it’s also their first appearance, making them the only hosts since 1934 to combine duties with their competition debut.
It should be a moment of celebration for a region boasting hundreds of millions of passionate football supporters. Yet the Gulf is still divided. While historic peace accords have recently been signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, the schism with Qatar seems no closer to being repaired. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has repeatedly asserted his hope that the extravaganza can bring stability back to the Gulf, but he probably shouldn’t hold his breath.
On the pitch, the 2022 World Cup will represent the ultimate test of a 16-year vision for football in Qatar. The Aspire Academy was created back in 2004 with the aim of dramatically improving the quality of the national team – and tasked with implementing the vision of Sheikh Jassim [bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the current Emir’s brother] was a bloke from Wolverhampton. Michael Browne oversaw the entire football programme at Aspire from 2004 to 2012, leaving his role as academy director at Charlton Athletic to do so.
“If you look at Qatar’s national team in the early 2000s, they would change the coach every year and they had a lot of naturalised players,” he tells FFT. “Understandably, they wanted to see root-and-branch improvement. The team wasn’t performing that well, so the idea was ‘we don’t mind losing but we might as well lose with our own players rather than these overseas ones’.”
The desired changes weren’t instantly forthcoming, largely because the pool of local talent was still too raw. Indeed, Qatar’s leading scorer remains the Uruguay-born Sebastian Soria, who became a poster boy for naturalisation when he made such a positive impact playing for the national side. For a decade from 2007, he was part of a patchwork senior team made up of naturalised South Americans, Africans and players from Middle East neighbours.
With the instruction of unearthing more Qatari talent, Browne began by scouring the globe for high-quality coaches who would be willing to relocate – not always the easiest sell. However, heads were quickly turned by the world-class training and medical facilities at the Aspire Academy, while the promise of tax-free living in a sun-kissed Gulf state wasn’t exactly disagreeable.
Browne and his Aspire coaches also identified Qatari starlets for the academy to recruit, and committed to an all-encompassing football education which featured schooling on site and regular coaching. Due to Qatar’s small population – 2.8 million, of whom only 300,000 are Qataris – it didn’t take Browne & Co. long to build up a picture of every school-aged player who could be eligible for the national team. This included several children of immigrants, like current striker Almoez Ali: he joined Aspire aged 10, having relocated with his family from Sudan a few years before that.
“Aspire has had a huge impact on the development of players, and of course the [Qatar Stars League] clubs and national team have really felt the benefit,” says Sanchez. “Each country has their own scenario. In Qatar, we are a country with a small number of people. The only thing we can do is work hard with the players we have and try to make them better. Each player has to be a project for us because we don’t have too many people here – we have to make the players we do have reach their potential.”
It appears to be working. Qatar faced Japan at the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups and had seven naturalised players in their starting line-up each time. When they faced off in the 2019 Asian Cup Final, only four were naturalised, and two of those had lived in Qatar since childhood.
The process has not been without its critics, however, with some stories over the years suggesting Qatar just made their naturalisation process more covert by bringing in players from a younger age and then resettling them in the Gulf. Browne spent more than a decade fighting accusations that Qatar was mining African talent to play for its national team.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he admits. “Particularly after Qatar was awarded the World Cup to host, we were inundated with media from all over the world coming over to ask the exact same question: ‘You’re bringing African boys over to play for Qatar?’ It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.”
There is no denying that foreign players have been shipped into the country in order to compete both against and as part of the Aspire Academy, but Browne insists that their purpose was to offer effective competition for Qatari youngsters – not to replace them.
“I can categorically say that we never brought any players over with a view to naturalising them at an early age,” he asserts. “That never happened. What we did was have players who relocated to Qatar as part of the Aspire Africa Project, which lifted the level on a daily basis for the Qataris.
“We’re proud of these stories, not trying to hide them. A number of these lads went on to play for their own national teams at different levels. John Benson is just one player I remember we had: he won the Under-20 World Cup with Ghana [in 2009].”
While better-quality footballers were being introduced into the Aspire Academy, the youth teams of various global heavyweights were often welcomed to Qatar for tournaments. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, PSG and Boca Juniors have all helped to provide a gauge for Qatari prodigies’ development, at the cost of millions.
It was on one such visit to Qatar in 2007 that Browne first met Felix Sanchez, then a fresh-faced coach at Barcelona’s La Masia.
“I always used to watch the coaches from the different teams and see how they conducted themselves – their manner,” reveals Browne. “Felix made a great impression and I invited him to work for us. He was coaching young kids at that stage but he always showed a very good work ethic. He’s passionate about improving the players, and he built a good relationship with them.”
The constant caretaker
Sanchez’s rise has been more measured than mighty, the Spaniard having gradually worked through Qatar’s age categories since then. It was in 2014 that he really made his first significant mark, winning the 2014 AFC Under-19 Championship ahead of continental giants such as China and Japan, the latter spearheaded by future Liverpool and Southampton attacker Takumi Minamino.
The following summer’s Under-20 World Cup proved a steep learning curve, with three losses from three group games, but Qatar stuck by Sanchez. In 2017, he stepped up to coach the Olympic team. Shortly after a failed qualification attempt, he was catapulted into the senior position for what many imagined would be a caretaker stint.
But with the Maroons having rattled through 29 coaches in 30 years, Sanchez is set to become Qatar’s longest-serving boss in 2021 when his tenure reaches the heady milestone of four years. When his many predecessors have included seasoned international veterans such as Philippe Troussier, Bruno Metsu and Milovan Rajevac – and also, at one point, Dave Mackay – the appointment of Sanchez broke the mould.
“Sanchez is a phenomenal man-manager and he has deserved his chance,” enthuses Mitch Freeley, a Qatar-based football journalist. “I’d say there are traits of Jose Mourinho in him. Qatar play good defensive football and harness that siege mentality like all of Mourinho’s great teams, and when they spring forward, they’re decisive on the counter.
“Most importantly, he knows his players inside-out and upside-down. He knows how they play; when they’re feeling good and when they’re feeling bad. He has a real bond that is very rare, and what he’s created is almost like a club side. That’s his best talent.”
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For a number of players, that bond was forged in their teenage years, working with Sanchez at Aspire. Four players who featured for Qatar in the 2019 Asian Cup Final – Tarek Salman, Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and Salem Al-Hajri – had played under Sanchez in 2014’s Under-19 Asian Championship; a further three – Tameem Al-Muhaza, Yousef Hassan and Mohammed Al-Bakri – were unused substitutes in 2019.
Sanchez has been given every chance of success thanks to the setup in Qatar. From the consistency in youth development provided by the Aspire Academy, to hankering for invitations to international events – like the Copa America in 2019 and 2021 – the national team is always Qatar’s number one focus. Even the Qatar Stars League (QSL), founded in 1963, has invested heavily to lure ageing stars such as Xavi, Wesley Sneijder and Santi Cazorla, in order to improve the quality and appeal of domestic football.
“The way the system works is unique in world football,” says Freeley, who once worked at the QSL as head of English content. “The league, national team and Aspire are in sync with each other. All of the players are based in Qatar, and while there has been some foreign interest in the likes of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, I imagine they’ll stay until after 2022 now. Felix Sanchez Bas is a very hands-on, technical coach, and the league is sculpted around getting the most amount of time on the training pitch with the national team players. Winning the Asian Cup justified that process to a lot of senior people in Qatar.”
Even with Sanchez’s success, Qatar – in keeping with many of their Gulf neighbours – have a trigger-happy reputation regarding national team managers. It means the Spaniard’s position still seems a little precarious, given that there are two full years to go until their home World Cup. The 2019 Asian Cup triumph gives him significant credit in the bank, but with a downturn in results since, including a 5-1 friendly hiding by Ghana in October, is there a risk he won’t make it to 2022?
“It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to see Sanchez lose his job and a big name come in,” says Freeley. “The lure of a big name is still huge in the Gulf, and there has been talk of a figurehead such as Pep Guardiola or Zinedine Zidane being drafted in. Honestly, though, I hope it doesn’t happen, because Sanchez deserves respect for what he has accomplished.”
Former Aspire head Browne agrees that Sanchez has performed well beyond expectations in producing a title-winning Qatari team.
“People don’t understand the reality of working with a population of Qatar’s size,” he explains. “I was born and raised in Wolverhampton, and if you said we were going to put together a national team from just Wolverhampton to compete at the World Cup, people would think you were mad. But that’s what has happened in Qatar. Felix Sanchez won the Asian Cup with a squad made up almost entirely of guys from the Aspire Academy. It’s something to be proud of.”
Football ground to a halt in Qatar during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning a distinct lack of game time for the national team in 2020 – only that humbling annihilation from Ghana up to November, in fact.
It’s a sharp contrast to 2019, when Qatar participated in the Gulf Cup and the Copa America after their Asian Cup victory. They were bottom of their group in Brazil but their results weren’t disgraceful: a 2-2 draw with Paraguay, 1-0 defeat to Colombia and 2-0 reverse to Argentina. More concerning was their quarter-final Gulf Cup exit to Saudi Arabia last December, when the team looked sluggish and devoid of a Plan B.
This summer, Qatar will ramp up preparations by entering as guests into the Copa America again, as well as playing at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Gulf Cup in Iraq, and their outstanding 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.
Then comes the biggest year in their history. As Asian champions, they will have the added pressure in two years’ time of advancing to the knockout stages of their home World Cup. It’s clear that avoiding the same fate as South Africa – the only hosts to have crashed out at the group stage – should be a minimum requirement.
“We’re feeling the responsibility but it’s a big honour,” says Sanchez. “We’re motivated and looking forward to seeing how we can face this competition – the biggest in football. I’d like Qatar to progress as far as possible; it’s difficult to say how far, but the most important thing is to show the world that Qatar is able to compete against any national team. I believe that, rather than pressure, is the motivation.”
Money will take you only so far, yet Qatari football has come a long way in a short space of time. Patience has been key: faith in long-term solutions and a holistic approach to youth development are central to the team’s evolution from Asian also-rans into continental champions.
With so many millions spent, it could be argued that failure would be a bigger story than success for Qatar – though for now, their sensible methods are bearing fruit. Given regional sensitivities currently and the unshakeable global suspicion towards them, however, they might be waiting some time for any congratulatory pats on the back.
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