Qatar winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, for the first time, has given the Middle East nation a massive boost in the run up towards them becoming the first nation in the region to stage a FIFA World Cup, in 2022. Not only did Qatar exceed all expectations, both internally and on the world stage, the impressive way they swept to the Final in the United Arab Emirates and the very impressive way they swept aside hot-favourites Japan to win the competition has made the world sit up and take note.
Not only that but all the negative publicity that has dogged Qatar since they were awarded the 2022 World Cup seems to have been pushed even further aside than it was ahead of the successful Asian Cup which heralded 2019, a great way to start the road to 2022 which is now just three years away.
Although the Asia Cup triumph was by far Qatar`s greatest international football achievement a delve into the archives shows that their national team, which only played its first international fixture as recently as 1970, has a pretty decent record. Qatar`s first ever international football fixture, in March 1970, saw a 2-1 defeat to Bahrain in which Mubarak Faraj entered the record books of Qatari football as the scorer of their first international goal.
Qatar has participated in 10 Asian Cup competitions although in the nine tournaments previous to 2019, they only reached the quarter-finals twice. In 2000 they were one of the two best 3rd placed teams and in 2011 they finished 2nd in Group A behind Uzbekistan.
Before entering the Asian Cup for the first time, in 1980, Qatar was a regular participant in the Gulf Cup, starting in 1972 when they slumped to three successive defeats but two years later they made a break through with the nation`s first international victory, 4-0 over Oman. Although Qatar lost in the Gulf Cup semi-final to Saudi Arabia they ended the tournament by winning the 3rd Place play-off with a penalty shoot-out victory over the UAE.
Qatar entered the qualifying stages for the Asia Cup for the first time in 1975 but failed to qualify for the 1976 tournament although they did host the 1976 Gulf Cup and finished third.
Qatar finally made their Asia Cup debut in 1980 after topping what proved a comfortable group which included Bangladesh and Afghanistan but made an early exit from the competition with a record of 1 win, 1 draw and 2 defeats. But the Qataris fared better in the 1984 Gulf Cup when they were runners-up to Iraq.
That 1984 achievement was Qatar`s best achievement until 1990 when they went from Gulf Cup runners-up, to Kuwait, to winning the cup on home soil two years later, despite losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in the final game.
Qatar international football continued improving throughout the 1990s and they finished runners-up in the 1996 Gulf Cup. Two years later, as hosts, they again finished runners-up in the 1998 Arab Nations Cup when they lost to Saudi Arabia.
In 2000 Qatar lost to China in the Asian Cup quarter-final and that was really it as far as international football achievement was concerned for Qatar in that decade. But then came the 2010 award of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and it was as if someone had lit a fuse under the national team.
In 2011, as hosts, they lost in the Asian Cup quarter-finals, to an 89th minute goal that gave eventual champions Japan a 3-2 victory. Then, again as hosts, they won the 2014 WAFF Championships. That was to be a most significant year for Qatar as they also won the Asia Under 19 Championship and their Gulf Cup success made it a superb hat-trick for 2014.
Despite suffering just a single defeat in 2014 subsequent World Cup and Asia Cup competitions were singularly unimpressive, even their forte the Gulf Cup, in 2017, saw them suffer the ignominy of elimination from the group stage.
But all was forgiven when Qatar stormed through to win the 2019 Asian Cup. Apart from hosts UAE Qatar was the first nation to qualify for the finals and they hit the ground running, winning their first six games, more than they managed in their previous nine Asia Cup competitions. And they only conceded a single goal in the entire tournament, and that was to Japan in the Final.
Qatar kicked off the 2019 Asian Cup with a 2-0 victory over Lebanon, essential as group rivals Saudi Arabia began with a 4-0 trouncing of North Korea but then Qatar really went to town by also beating Lebanon, scoring two more goals than the Saudis, and four of their goals came from Almoez Ali Zainalabiddin Abdulah taking his tally to five in two games. When it came to the crunch tie Qatar continued their impressive form with a 2-0 success over Saudi Arabia and Ali continued his outstanding form with both goals to make it seven goals in three matches to win the group with three wins out of three, 10 goals scored and none conceded.
In the Round of 16 clash with Iraq Qatar won a knock-out game at the Asian Cup for the first time with Al Rawi`s stunning curler of a free-kick to progress to a quarter-final date with South Korea. If Qatar had surprised everyone with their progress to the last eight they caused a shock to complete a kind of Korea `double` with another 1-0 victory, only the second defeat for South Korea in 21 Asia Cup matches. The decisive goal was a stunning Abdelaziz Hatem strike just 12 minutes from the end of a game in which chances were at a premium.
In the semi-final it was a real derby and almost a domestic affair as Qatar faced hosts UAE, one of the neighbouring countries imposing sanctions on Qatar for alleged terrorist affiliations. It was to be more one-sided than anticipated and the UAE side were swamped 4-0, and Almoez Ali maintained his scoring form with one of the goals taking him to eight in the tournament.
So, for the first time ever Qatar reached the Asia Cup Final where they faced hot favourites Japan who had swept imperiously through their three knock out games without conceding a goal.
Undaunted by facing the favourites Qatar made the best possible start to the Final taking a 12th minute lead through, of course, Almoez Ali. Not only did he do it in style with an audacious overhead kick but his goal set a new record of nine for the Asian Cup. It was added irony that Sudan-born Ali was only cleared to play by the Asian Football Confederation a few hours before the Final following a protest by the UAE as to his eligibility.
Hatem then added a second 15 minutes later and Japan were rocking. Another milestone was reached after 69 minutes when Takumi Minamino became the first player to breach the Qatar defence in the tournament but the two goal advantage was restored by a late Akram Afif penalty to inflict a first ever Asian Cup Final defeat on Japan and give Qatar their first title and a massive boost on the road to Qatar 2022.
It remains to be seen just how much impetus the Asia Cup win will give Qatar, still embargoed by several of their near neighbours. But the 2022 hosts have ploughed on regardless determined that they can build on the success of Russia 2018 and are certain to maximise the boost of the Asian Cup triumph.
The Qataris were hampered by their lack of football tradition even before they put their 2022 bid in and they have made no bones about utilising the World Cup to become more high profile on the regional and world stage. But it quickly became apparent in the wake of the award announcement in 2010 that Qatar severely under estimated the fall out heaped upon them, from Human Rights to the colossal cost of hosting the 2022 World Cup but they did react in positive ways. From new labour laws to relaxation of attitudes towards alcohol and homosexuality, which is illegal in that nation. `Everyone is welcome in 2022` is the official line from the Supreme Committee responsible for the World Cup although its not clear how current law will be applied.
What is perhaps difficult for the West to understand is that change in the Middle East is more evolution than revolution and for a tiny country like Qatar, which has an oil economy based on a labour intensive industry shifting the dynamic is not easy.
Qatar wants to be more prominent hence being thrust onto the world stage via the World Cup but with the spotlight comes greater scrutiny and that is a new factor the 2022 hosts will have to come to terms with. Whatever their legacy is, for their own people, and that is expressed as a driving force behind their World Cup preparations, it will not be apparent until well after the gold trophy is presented in December 2022. But Qatar made a start well ahead of bidding for the World Cup in the first place.
In 2004 the Aspire Academy was founded in Qatar with the express purpose of scouting and developing Qatari athletes, precisely because the nation did not have a sporting and football heritage. Providing a secondary education was also part of the remit. Within a decade that policy had borne fruit when the Qatar Under 19 National Football won the AFC Under 19 Championships for the first time, with a team comprised entirely of current or previous Aspire Academy students.
It will be interesting to see how many of them will feature in Qatar 2022.