For those who thought Qatar would at the very best make up the numbers at its own World Cup in 2022, this week’s eye-catching victory over Switzerland will have come as a big surprise.
It may only have been a friendly, but undeniably the 1-0 win – in Lugano, Switzerland – was a landmark and symbolic result in many ways for the Qatari team.
It was the first time Qatar had beaten a European team in their own country.
Switzerland, who reached the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup and are currently eighth in FIFA’s rankings, are also the highest-ranked side ever beaten by Al-Annabi (the maroons), ranked 88 places lower.
And for good measure the 86th-minute winner was scored by Akram Afif, the first Qatari to play in Spain’s La Liga and a product of Aspire Academy, an expensively-built Doha training centre which seeks to hothouse local talent.
The victory, almost four years to the day before the 2022 World Cup begins, was perhaps the first sign that Qatar is catching up with more established football powers.
“We are in a good way,” Xavi Hernandez, who earned 133 caps and a World Cup winners’ medal with Spain, told AFP referring to Qatar, where he now plays.
“We have many talented players and it means that [coach] Felix Sanchez is doing a really good job.
“We must keep going like that. It’s a big win, of course.”
Sanchez said the result would make the country “very proud”.
- 2022 worries -
While much of the attention on the 2022 World Cup has focused on off-field matters – corruption allegations, human rights, regional politics – there has also been deep concern about how the host country will perform on the pitch.
Qualification for Russia ended in failure as Qatar finished bottom of six in their final group stage.
They had more coaches (three) than victories (two) during this final stretch of 10 games, and were beaten by, among others, a homeless Syria team.
They limped out of the World Cup at the expensively-refurbished Khalifa Stadium, one of the 2022 venues, beaten by an abject Chinese side.
The symbolism was apparent even to the few fans who bothered to turn up that night.
It confirmed Qatar would become the first country to host a World Cup without ever before playing in a finals since Italy way back in 1934.
Critics said elimination emphasised the country’s lack of footballing pedigree and predicted they would become the first host nation not to win a game at their own World Cup.
- Younger players -
The Qatar Football Association was alarmed as well.
It decided to bring younger players into the national team and try and develop Qatari-born players rather than “naturalised” foreign stars.
The average age of Qatar’s starting line-up in Switzerland was 24 years and 195 days, two years younger than the Swiss team, according to pan-Arab statistics platform, Mundial11.
The country’s still all-time top scorer, Sebastian Soria may have been born in Uruguay, but as many as nine of those players who started in Lugano were born in Qatar.
And 13 of the 23 players in Wednesday’s squad were Aspire graduates.
Promoting younger players was helped by making Spaniard Sanchez the national coach.
He has worked at the Academy, and with the Qatari U-19, U-20 and U-23 teams.
It’s been a good few weeks for Aspire, as Qatar’s U-20 team have just qualified for next year’s World Cup.
Sanchez, 42, is a friendly yet shy person, who appears to want to do his work out of the media spotlight, which suits Qatar.
Many expect him to be replaced by a “big name” come 2022, possibly Xavi, who has admitted he would be “open” to taking charge.
And 2019 is a big year for Sanchez and his team.
In January they play in the Asian Cup, a sensitive assignment for Qatar given that it is hosted by the United Arab Emirates, one of the Gulf countries currently locked in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Doha.
Next summer they will take on the might of Argentina and Brazil, as well as others, as Qatar improbably plays in the Copa America.
These tournaments – and a friendly against Iceland on November 19 – will determine just how far Qatar is progressing.