If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard, Qatar are hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Amidst the corruption scandals, human rights violations and general outrage at the decision, there’s the largely unspoken fact that Qatar will also need to assemble a competitive football team to ensure they’re not embarrassed at the tournament.
To that end, significant steps have been taken to develop and grow football in Qatar; from investment in facilities, to a greater professionalism of the national league as well as the establishment of the Aspire Academy, a school for talented players to train together in a world-class environment.
The Academy is phenomenal, featuring state-of-the-art facilities and cutting-edge technology in performance analysis. It houses the country’s best players, brought to the school via a screening process that identifies the top 1% of athletes from Year 6 each year. They are brought to the academy to start high school, but more pertinently, to train and develop as footballers.
There are also whispers that Aspire identifies talented players from developing countries and brings them to Qatar to ‘provide an opportunity they wouldn’t get back home’ – which is true, of course, but with the handy side-benefit of players taking on Qatari citizenship, and thus being eligible for the national team.
That’s the crux of the issue. FIFA has already warned Qatari over their citizenship practices, with star striker Sebastian Soria the prime example – born in Uruguay, lived and trained there as a child, and moved to Qatar in 2004 at the age of 21. Barely two years later, he was naturalised, and he’s since played over 100 games for the country.
Ironically, though, Soria won’t be at the Asian Cup after Djamel Belmadi surprisingly left him out of the final 23-man squad. It seems Soria has paid the price for being injured for the Gulf Cup. In his place, Boualem Khoukhi and Meshal Abdullah showed they were capable of playing upfront, with the former brilliant at the November tournament, and the latter impressing in recent friendlies – he scored a brace in the last friendly against Oman. Khoukhi is also capable of playing on the wing.
Whoever gets the nod will have the support of two of the tournament’s most exciting attackers. Khalfan Ibrahim is the bigger name – nominated for AFC Player of the Year in 2014, and already with 81 appearances despite being just 26 years of age. Ibrahim is the team’s playmaker – nicknamed ‘Ibrahiminho’ in reference to Ronaldinho, and sharing the Brazilian’s ability to dribble in tight spaces, unleash powerful shots at goal and produce moments of magic. In many ways, it might be more approprirate to compare Ibrahim to Neymar – both start high up on the left wing, and capable of stunning solo goals.
On the right is another tricky customer, Hassan Al-Haidos. Al-Haidos tends to link up more than Ibrahim, playing quite narrow, though is capable of sprinting in behind the opposition defence. He’s also a very calm penalty-taker, and gets lots of support from the overlapping right-back, Mohammed Musa.
Indeed, both Qatari full-backs – Abdelkarim Hassan is on the left – like to get forward, which gives the side lots of width and allows the wingers to move infield. Qatar often move the ball upfield via the flanks, which makes the attacking intent of Hassan and Musa important.
To ensure the side isn’t undermanned defensively, Belmadi uses a trio of central midfielders rather than an outright no.10. Khalid Abdulraouf will probably be the most advanced, linking the midfield to attack. Abdulaziz Hatem and Karim Boudiaf sit slightly deeper.
At centre-back, the partnership of Ibrahim Majid and Bilal Mohammed will probably be favoured. Majid is a strong defender and can hit bullet-like free-kicks from distance. In goals is Qasem Burham, who made several stunning saves at the Gulf Cup.
In terms of approach, Qatar likes his side to dominate possession. Belmadi is a positive, forward-thinking coach who has been rewarded for his success at Qatar club side Lekhwiya, where he won two titles, and continues to lean heavily on the domestic league – this entire squad is locally based.
At the Gulf Cup, Belmadi was without his two star players, Soria and Ibrahim, which probably necessistated the switch to a more reactive approach. Encouragingly, his side were comfortable playing more predominantly on the counter-attack, and went on to win the tournament. Qatar were also the winners of the U19 Asian Cup and the West Asian Football Championship in 2014, and are currently 11 matches unbeaten.
They’ll surprise teams with their quality, even though their success over the past year should already be an indicator of their improvement.