Qatar’s starlets gain ground with 2022 World Cup in mind
Qatar has made a blistering start to the AFC U23 Championships on home soil, winning all its three group matches
In six years, Qatar will be the center of the world’s attention when the 2022 World Cup takes place in the Middle East for the first time. As host nation, Qatar will find itself playing against the crème de la crème of international football. Right now there would be little hope for the tiny state, but the foundations were laid several years ago and some sprouts are beginning to emerge.
Qatar has made a blistering start to the AFC U23 Championships on home soil, winning all its three group matches. In front of more than 6,000 fans, the Qataris defeated China 3-1 in the opening game, before sneaking a superb 2-1 win over Iran. Although both teams dwarf Qatar in terms of population, and are respected sides in full Asian international competitions, the Gulf state has maximized its close concentration of talent.
On Monday, Qatar dispatched a strong-looking Syrian team 4-2, and will face North Korea in the quarterfinals on Friday. Given Qatar’s superb start, the likelihood of a victory is high, and a semifinal against Iraq, South Korea, Jordan, Australia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would be a real test of the team’s credentials. “It’s a tough tournament, and we have to go game by game,” said U23 team coach Felix Sanchez.
A former Barcelona youth coach, Sanchez is the chief youth coach with Qatar’s national football team, in partnership with the prestigious Aspire academy in Doha. With the help of accelerated development in this group of young players, Qatar has seen outstanding success in recent years. In 2014, the U19 side was crowned Asian champions, beating North Korea in the final in Myanmar.
That success secured a place at the U20 World Cup in New Zealand, where Sanchez’s team was knocked out at the first hurdle. He has facilitated moves to European clubs for several young players who were involved in these squads. Of the 23-man squad named for the U23 championships, 10 play football in Europe, six of them for Belgian side Eupen.
“Aspire is where everything starts, because every single one of our players has trained there for the last six, seven or eight years,” said Sanchez. “They’ve all developed their games there and their mental strength, which explains why they’re so mature now. A decision was made to send them to Europe so they could improve as players. It’s a great experience for them.”
Akram Afif is one of those Eupen players in the second-tier of Belgian football. He scored the winner in the U19 championships, and has impressed already in the U23 competition. Small and comfortable in tight situations, Afif bears the traits of a traditional Spanish midfielder.
Most impressive is the team’s experienced left-back Abdelkarim Hassan. The 22-year-old has collected more than 100 appearances for Al-Sadd, and featured in the Asian Champions League and Club World Cup of 2011. Hassan’s notable characteristics are his speed and power, but his combinations are impressive too with forward players.
Naturally, the focus turns to how these players will develop in the space of six years. For the 2022 World Cup, Hassan would be 28 and perhaps targeting a role in one of Europe’s top leagues. “Qatar is putting in a lot of effort, and it’s investing a lot in youth development,” said Sanchez. “The players will learn a lot from these competitions, and hopefully Qatar will reach a very good level before the World Cup in 2022.”
With heavy financing and management from Europe’s gold-standard nations, the Qataris appear to be doing something right. What would crown it off is a championship victory on their home patch to inspire the locals.
“The players are highly motivated, and looking forward to play in the next game and to win to be in the semifinal,” said Sanchez after the Syria win. If the crucial phase of development is nailed, Qatar could be poised - at least on the field - to impress when the world’s footballing elite come to town in the winter of 2022.