With just days to go before Qatar begin the last round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, captain Hasan al-Haidos is brimming with confidence.
“This time, I’m very optimistic,” he told FIFA.com, sharing his hopes in an exclusive interview. “We’re more determined than ever to realise the dream we’ve been pursuing for a very long time.”
The task awaiting al-Haidos and Co is a Group A featuring South Korea, Syria, Iran, China and Uzbekistan. They kick off away to Iran at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on September 1, and will be eager to improve on past results if they are to hit the ground running.
That game will be the ninth between the two nations, Qatar having recorded just one win to go with three draws and four defeats—all three stalemates and one loss coming on the road to Brazil 2014.
Al-Haidos played in two of those games and he is adamant that his team need to make a strong start.
“It’s always important to begin well,” he said. “I don’t think we could have had a more difficult opening game. It’s always very tough against Iran, and even more so away from home in front of their fans. But I think we’re ready to face the challenge this time. We’ve prepared well with (head coach) Jose Carreno. The players have a perfect understanding and everyone is determined to meet expectations over there.”
Those expectations have certainly risen since Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, which the national team will compete in as automatic qualifiers. While work on stadiums and infrastructure continues around the country, Carreno’s charges have performed well in the lead-up to the 2018 edition – improving on their failed bid to reach Brazil 2014.
“We’re aware of the pressure upon us,” al-Haidos continued. “Our loyal supporters want to see us at the World Cup, which is entirely fair. The pressure will only build, but we’re determined to transform it into positive energy. One of our major assets against our opponents will be our combativeness.
“Like I’ve said before, optimism doesn’t spring from hope alone. Everything we’re experiencing at the moment is feeding our ambition.
“Our preparations have been productive and varied, and we’ve improved our physical condition in the early part of this season. Our friendly games have shown that the players have progressed in terms of technique as well. We’ve put in a lot of work and we want to see it pay off on the pitch.”
Qatar will be pitting themselves against a trio of former World Cup participants in Group A, with South Korea, Iran and China having all graced previous finals. For al-Haidos, their presence makes his team’s mission even more complicated, but he does not view those sides as clear favourites.
“Experience counts, but football has changed a lot,” he explains. “It’s difficult to pick out a favourite to go through. I think all the teams will start on an equal footing. They’ll all be kicking off with a lot of ambition and the intention of taking points, and that’s normal.
“What will make things difficult is the diversity of the teams in this group. Some of them are all about pace and excellent technique, while others are more noted for their physical power and tactical expertise. We’ll be relying on our hard work and our coach Carreno to put the right game plans in place for each of our opponents.”
Despite their past travails in World Cup qualifying, Qatar appear in good shape to challenge this time, having topped Group C in the previous round thanks to seven wins from eight games. That enabled them to progress before any other team, and their impressive tally of 29 goals was also the best on the continent. Playing out wide or as a withdrawn forward, al-Haidos notched five of those strikes in seven appearances, and he goes into the next phase as Qatar’s leading scorer.
“Our start against Maldives was hard work, but after that the wins kept coming,” he said. “We improved in every match, as our victories against China and Hong Kong just go to show. We only lost on the last day, when we’d already qualified. As for my goals, if I scored a few it was thanks to the work of the whole team. For me, it’s more important to win and get points than score goals. I hope I can continue finding the net and helping my team-mates do the same.”
At 25, al-Haidos could be forgiven for finding the captain’s armband a heavy responsibility, but after several years of testing himself on the international stage, he feels comfortable in the role. “It’s an honour for any player. I hope I’m able to live up to the greats who’ve gone before me in recent years, like Mohamed Salem al-Enazi and Mubarak Mustafa.”
Leading from the front, the key now is to maintain the momentum that has spread such belief through the Qatari ranks. “We’re all going to pull together to clinch qualification. I know the fans will be there for us in the stadiums. Everything will depend on what happens on the pitch and I hope this long road will lead us to a place at Russia 2018.” (www.FIFA.com)