Qatar were given a huge boost in their hopes to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia following the draw for the final section of qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur.
They have managed to avoid Australia and Japan at the last hurdle and will compete for a top-three position with Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China and Syria.
Given the animosity from Europe and the West over their handling of the 2022 event, Qatar would be well-advised to break their World Cup hoodoo before hosting the competition.
By reaching Russia, the Middle Eastern nation can end talk of being there on anything but merit.
And Qatar has a realistic chance. In the second round of qualification for Russia 2018, which includes some of the poorest-ranked sides in competition, Qatar racked up 21 points from eight games - and even managed to pip China to first place.
The quality of football from the national side has been on the rise for several years.
In 2011, Qatar, host nation, qualified for quarter-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup. Despite a strong showing in qualification, the 2015 edition in Australia was a disappointment as Qatar bowed out after the group stages. Reaching the U20 World Cup in the same year was another invaluable experience.
If the fact Qatar has competed with the leading nations wasn’t a cause for optimism, the country’s youth sides certainly are: Qatar recently won the U19 Asian Championships and came fourth in the U23 Asian Championships. Akram Afif, a promising 19-year-old attacking-midfielder, who was arguably the Player of the Tournament in both events, has already made the jump to the full national squad under the guidance of Uruguayan boss Jose Daniel Carreno.
It’s more evidence that Qatar is beginning to shape their football vision. With its extreme resources and heavy investment, the fundamentals are unsurprisingly in place. The outstanding Aspire academy. for example, was founded in 2004 - eight years before Qatari Sports Investments purchased the controlling stake in France’s Paris Saint-Germain. The Aspire venue is one of the leading football centres on the planet.
Football is just one aspect of that. There’s a range of other sporting superstars at the academy, guided along the road to stardom by the best off-pitch talent around. Sport scientists, doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs, technical coaches, nutritional experts and researchers are all based in the sprawling campus.
Qatar has attracted the sharpest minds with their grand ambitions. The Aspire academy has shrewdly looked to Spain, and Barcelona, in particular, for guidance and knowledge. Felix Sanchez is the central youth coach for the Qatari development sides, and his already impressive results have shown the country is going in the right direction. Rather than waiting for 2022 to shine, Qatar might feel it has an outside chance of doing so in two years.
Can China achieve their goal ahead of schedule?
This week, stories emerged from China that the country plans to be a footballing superpower by 2050. This isn’t exactly unrealistic given the country has a population of over one billion and football is now compulsory in schools. It should be seen as a disappointment for China to not be at a World Cup in the next decade.
President Xi Jinping previously wanted a World Cup win in the next 15 years. The strategy released this week, included key details of how the country planned to reach elite status. China is planning to build another 20,000 football training centres and a further 70,000 pitches in place by 2020. In Guangzhou, the country already boasts one of the biggest football complexes on the planet, which is twinned with Real Madrid.
But in the short-term, China have to work with what they have at their disposal. A total of 17 points in qualification was seen as below par for coach Alain Perrin who was sacked in February. Gao
Hongbo has resumed control of the national team, which has already qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup in Oman.
Domestic and Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande make up the bulk of the China side. The 30-year-old striker Gao Lin has 18 international goals in 86 appearances. Zhang Xizhe, who signed for German club Wolfsburg over a year ago, is now back playing for Beijing Guaon in the Super League, but at 25, his development has clearly stalled. As much as President Jinping would like to believe it, China isn’t blessed with football talent at the moment.
Qualification, however, wouldn’t be miraculous. Three of the section will progress - two qualifying automatically and one involved in the playoffs. Unless there’s a bizarre twist of fate, Iran and Korea are likely to be at the World Cup, but the battle between Qatar, China and the higher-ranked