The year is 2014. A young forward – with potential to be a star for his country – is aiming big. He gets the stage and delivers. That young player was Akram Afif who found the net for Qatar U-19 squad battling North Korea in the final of the AFC Asian Cup in Myanmar in October that year. Afif, just 17 then, scored the only goal of the final in the 52nd minute as Qatar became the Asian champions in U-19. That was the beginning of Qatar’s resurgence in regional and Asian football. Fast forward to today, Afif and his teammate from those years, Almoez Ali, will lead Qatar’s charge as they prepare to make their FIFA World Cup debut against Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium today. Afif, the Al Sadd star, and Almoez, the Al Duhail captain, were two of the heroes who guided Qatar to their 2019 AFC Asian Cup title winning campaign in the UAE.
Thanks largely to former Barcelona youth coach Felix Sanchez – who has guided the two young players and a series of other young players over the last seven-eight years – Qatar has charted their journey to the World Cup debut in an inspiring manner. The message then was: get hold of them young, groom them under the tutelage of fitness experts and specialised coaches, pick the sharper ones for age specific tournaments for exposure sake and eventually and help the quality young players graduate to the Qatar national side.
With a player pool of just 5,000 (a rough estimate), Qatar – coached by Sanchez – went on to become the Asian Cup champions in February 2019 when they beat three-time champions Japan in the final held at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Dubai. The journey to the Asian Cup title three years ago wasn’t easy but clearly not too hard to understand. In just a little over 15 years, Qatar’s heavy investment in sports in general and football in particular has paid rich dividends for a country that is just 24 hours away from hosting the region’s first FIFA World Cup.
Just as Afif’s match-winning goal in the AFC U-19 Asian Cup final was a watershed moment in the country’s football journey, the platform to excel on a football field took scientific root when FIFA World Cup heroes Pele and Diego Maradona touched down in Doha for the inauguration of the Aspire Academy in November 2005. The world’s largest indoor sports facility – replete with the most modern set-up to groom young kids for a sound beginning to their cherished dreams – the Aspire Academy has given Qatar football players like Afif, Almoez, Saad al-Sheeb and even global track and field star Mutaz Essa Barshim.
In between building a strong base for young players who could go on to deliver positive results on the field of play, Qatar has developed stunning football infrastructure that is quite simply the envy of the football world. After winning the FIFA World Cup bid race for the 2022 edition, Qatar has built seven brand new venues – each a viewing spectacle in itself – and completely revamped the iconic Khalifa International Stadium that was built in 1976.
Among the seven new 2022 FIFA World Cup venues, one is in the shape of a ‘gahfiya’, a traditional woven cap worn by men and boys across the Middle East. Another is the 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium which is designed after the tents used by nomadic people living in the deserts in Qatar and the region decades ago. The Education City Stadium is just as unique as the first two. The exterior of the Education City Stadium has triangles that form diamond-like geometrical patterns that sparkle as the sun moves across the sky. Al Janoub Stadium, another brand new venue that was unveiled in 2019, has a captivating design that looks like wind-filled sails of dhow boats usually seen moored at the Corniche bay and other waterfront areas in the country.
On the field of play, the hugely popular Qatar Stars League runs nine months every season. Every game is telecast live as are other tournaments falling under the purview of the Qatar Football Association (QFA). Qatar’s top professional football league has attracted some great names in the world of football like Nigel De Jong (Al Ahli, Al Shahaniya), Mario Mandzukic (Al Duhail), Santi Cazorla (Al Sadd), Samuel Eto’o (Qatar SC), James Rodriguez (Al Rayyan), Tobby Alderweireld (Al Duhail), Marcel Desailly (Al Gharafa, Qatar SC), Wesley Sneijder (Al Gharafa), Xavi Hernandez (Al Sadd, coach and player), Juninho (Al Gharafa), Gabriel Batistuta (Al Arabi) and Claudio Caniggia (Qatar SC). The fiercely contested league has 12 clubs with each delivering a platform for youth teams as well. Al Sadd, the country’s premier football club, is a former AFC Champions League title winner. Al Sadd players and Qatar internationals Abdelkarim Hassan (2018) and Afif (2019) have won the AFC Asian Player of the Year awards.
Over the last decade and half, Qatar has successfully hosted key football events like the AFC Asian Cup, the Gulf Cup, FIFA World Cup qualifiers, age specific Asian events and a series of West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) tournaments. Just when the fans needed to see football activity resume at a time when Covid-19 pandemic was raging across the world, Qatar activated hundreds of health workers to host the AFC Champions League matches of the East and West Zones in September 2020 and again in November and December the same year. Building bridges between the Asian region and the world, QFA and the Qatar Stars League Management (QSLM) deserve special praise for conducting a series of football development workshops in coaching and refereeing areas for most part of the last decade. A truly creditable service, QFA continues to host workshops recognized by FIFA, UEFA and AFC officials from time to time.
In a nutshell, Qatar’s is a football success story – on and off field. The country deserves praise for bringing the FIFA World Cup to this region for the first time. There can’t be a better time for the world to know the region first-hand. As Qatar welcomes the fans for the FIFA World Cup, the national team players should enjoy their golden moment in the sun. They have deserved this moment. Winning and losing are part of the sport but the occasion as big as the World Cup has to be enjoyed and savoured for generations to come.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan, folks!