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Qatar are proving they are no pushovers at the Copa America ahead of 2022 World Cup

Qatar have shown they can hang with the elites

The final whistle blew and the men in burgundy shirts sunk to the floor. Some were on their knees, heads in hands, others prostrate on their backs. They were exhausted and disappointed – but once the dust has settled, they will look back on their performance with pride.

For 86 minutes, Qatar had held at bay a Colombia team featuring James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and last season’s Serie A top scorer Duvan Zapata. They had worked and worked, maintaining an impressive level of tactical discipline and, when needed, had put their bodies on the line.

But as the end drifted closer, Los Cafeteros extra quality shone through. James picked out Zapata with a delightful outside-of the-boot pass and the man who has hit the net so many times for Atalanta in recent months angled a perfect header into the far corner of the net.

The Qatari frustration was understandable. But at this year’s Copa America in Brazil, where they are taking part as one of two invited Asian teams, it is not really the result that matters. Instead their eyes are firmly fixed on 2022, when, as hosts, they will be under pressure to put in a respectable display at the World Cup.

When they were awarded the tournament – in a selection process that has since been shrouded in accusations of corruption and took a further hit with the recent arrest of Michel Platini – Qatar were 113th in the FIFA rankings, wedged uncomfortably between Thailand and the Central African Republic.

At the time, it would have been fair to assume that they would struggle to hold their own, even with the games played on home soil. And when the entire point of the tournament is to project a certain image of the country to the world, a dire display would have been embarrassing.

But since then, the Qatari national team’s on-pitch progress has been remarkable.

They won the Asian U19 Championships in 2014, took the senior version of the title earlier this year and, as the most recent marker of their development, are going now toe to toe with some of the best players on the planet.

“[The Copa America] is a huge experience for us,” Qatar centre-half Tarek Salman told me in the mixed zone after the game, sporting an immaculate blue suit and proudly clutching James’ number 10 shirt.

“[We are playing] good games with a high rhythm, different from our league or our Champions League. Also, we are young players. Some of our players are 21, 22, so it’s good for us to get this high rhythm so we can be ready for 2022.”

All of their squad play their domestic football in the Qatar Stars League, so tournaments like this are invaluable for gaining an understanding of what it takes to play against better sides in unfamiliar conditions.

Mohamed Saadi, a football commentator for Qatari television channel Al Kass, believes that this is the team’s biggest challenge to date. “We need to go to the next level,” he says, “and [the Copa America] is better than the Asian Cup.”

“You see Brazil with Neymar before the injury,” he continues, “you see Argentina with Messi, Colombia with James, Falcao and Cuadrado. They are players we see on television; they play in the Champions League.”

This new-found success has not come by chance, but is the result of a long and expensive process. Fifteen years ago, Qatar laid the foundations of the Aspire Academy, a sports training facility in Doha that Saadi tells me is the biggest in the Middle East.

Over a third of the current squad came through at Aspire and a few have progressed all the way through the ranks under the tutelage of Felix Sanchez, who climbed the ranks with them, finally taking over as head coach of the senior team in 2017.

Qatar

“[The players] grew up with him”, says Saadi. “All the way from the youth, to the U17, to the U19 teams that won the Asian Cup in Myanmar and played the U20 World Cup in New Zealand. [They] finished third at the U23 Asian Cup in 2018 and won the senior Asian Cup [this year].”

Centre-back Salman is one of those players and is unsurprisingly full of praise for his manager; “He is my coach since I was at the Aspire Academy ten years ago. So, I know him well and he knows me.”

“He knows my talent; he believes in me. Some other coaches would not believe in the young players, they would take experienced players. He’s a good man and he has a good mentality”, Salman concludes.

That continuity is key, according to Fahad Aljufairi, a 26-year-old engineer and fan who has travelled from Qatar to Brazil to follow his nation’s progress. “It’s the chemistry of the team [that leads to success]”, he opines, “they have been together since they were very young. They know each other, they grew up with each other.”

That understanding is clear to see on the pitch and is the reason they only conceded once during their march to that inaugural continental title. They move as a unit and are prepared to give everything for the benefit of the collective.

“I’m proud of my team-mates,” Salman declares, “they’ve worked a lot this tournament. You could see it [in the 2-2 opening-round draw] against Paraguay. We got one point and we maybe deserved more.”

With the accusations of underhand tactics in securing the tournament back in the news and Amnesty International having released a report earlier this year estimating that 4,000 migrant workers will die before the stadiums are complete, the off-pitch problems do not look like they will go away any time soon.

But for the team itself, fears of a disastrous display are starting to be banished. They will have another Copa America to play in 2020 and, after that, another two years for this young side to develop.

First though, they will face Argentina on Sunday and will be hopeful of causing an upset. Argentina are in disarray having lost to Colombia and drawn with Paraguay and another poor result will see the Albiceleste packing their bags and heading home.

For this young Qatar team, knocking Lionel Messi and his team-mates out of the tournament would perhaps be their biggest achievement yet.