Qatar’s great football experiment will be put to the ultimate test when its start-from-scratch team makes its World Cup debut next year after millions of dollars have been invested and thousands of hours have been spent on the training pitch.
Coached from Spanish giants Barcelona at Doha’s renowned Aspire Academy, no expense has been spared by tiny, wealthy Qatar, who crave respectability on the field as the Middle East’s first World Cup hosts.
As night falls over the state-of-the-art facility, just a year after the tournament began, the players’ laughter and jokes on the field are replaced by solemn expressions.
“I feel pressure and responsibility, which is both a beautiful and difficult feeling,” midfielder Abdallah Al-Ahrak told AFP. “We’re almost there, with only a year to go.” We’re doing everything we can to prepare.”
Football was a desert for resource-rich Qatar before the Aspire graduates blossomed, with the country embarrassingly losing all three group games at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.
Only four years later, Qatar swept through the competition to become Asian champions for the first time, with Sudan-born Aspire alumnus Almoez Ali scoring a bicycle-kick in the 3-1 final win over Japan. During their nine years together, the team was coached by Felix Sanchez, who was recruited from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, Lionel Messi’s alma mater. “We haven’t won the Asian Cup in over two years. “We can’t just live off our memories, but we also shouldn’t forget what we’ve accomplished,” the Spaniard said.
‘Anything can happen’
According to the facility’s website, 70% of Qatar’s team came through Aspire, but football isn’t the only success story.
Mutaz Essa Barshim is a two-time world champion who famously agreed to share Olympic gold this year with Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi.
But next year will be all about the World Cup and hopes for similar scenes to 2019, when Qataris and the country’s expatriates — who account for roughly 90% of the population — shared a rare moment of joy.
Those hopes rest on the shoulders of the Qatari team, who were training on a small pitch while teenagers in sports gear ambled down corridors nearby during AFP’s recent visit to Aspire.
Goalkeeper Yousef Hassan stated that the players’ excitement is growing as their World Cup “dream” becomes a reality.
“I’ve been watching the World Cup on TV since I was a kid.” “I’ve always had that ambition, that desire to play in it one day,” he said.
“Thank God we’ve been given this opportunity today, and we’re all determined to make the most of it,” the 25-year-old added.
“We’re going to make history, and that’s something we’re really looking forward to.”
Qatar, the first host nation to never have qualified for a World Cup by right, can take heart from South Korea’s stunning victory over Portugal.
As co-organizers, Italy and Spain advanced to the World Cup semi-finals in 2002.
“In football, anything is possible,” Hassan said. “Every time, a team that no one expected to win manages to advance far in the competition.” “Anything is possible.”
Qatar will face a “big challenge” against the “best teams in the world,” according to Coach Sanchez. “Get out of the pool stage,” was his first goal.
“It’s a significant responsibility.” “We feel more pride than pressure to be able to play in a World Cup,” Sanchez said.
It’s a golden opportunity for Qatar’s supporters, who make up the majority of the country’s 2.7 million ex-pats, to see their team compete at the highest level.
“We’ve been discussing the World Cup for ten years.”