Qatar have reaped rich rewards for a long-term investment in coach Felix Sanchez and the Spaniard has repaid the faith of the Qatar Football Association (QFA) by leading his team to the Asian Cup semi-finals. The Qataris had never been past the quarter-finals in nine previous attempts but today they will take on hosts the United Arab Emirates for the right to play Japan for the continental championship title.
Sanchez only got the top job in July 2017 but his work with some of the bright young talents that have helped get Qatar to the last four goes back to when they were nine or 10 years old at Qatar’s Aspire Academy.
A former Barcelona youth coach, the 43-year-old moved to the Gulf to work at the academy in 2006 and after guiding Qatar to the 2013 Asian under-19 championships, has progressed with his players through the age-group teams to the senior side. Among the early 20-somethings are the highly talented forward Akram Afif and striker Almoez Ali, who has scored seven goals already in the tournament. “He knows what we don’t like, what we like,” defender Bassam al-Rawi told Reuters after the quarter-final victory over South Korea. “We know what he wants from us, so it’s very nice. He’s like a father.”
Of course, while winning the Asian Cup would be a huge boost, the main focus at the QFA is ensuring they have a team that will not embarrass them in three years’ time when they host the World Cup, a tournament they have never qualified for.
“We came here and we were talking many times with the players that we need to show that we can compete with the best teams in Asia,” Sanchez told reporters last week. “I think at the moment they have shown that they can compete, perform well and get results in the competition.”
A 1-0 win over second string Switzerland last November indicated they were on the right path, while at the Asian Cup they have beaten three-times Asian champions Saudi Arabia, 2007 title winners Iraq as well as pre-tournament favourites South Korea.
Qatar will further test their progress as a guest team at this year’s Copa America. As might be expected of a team that know each other so well, the Qataris have a very disciplined structure and have yet to concede a goal in their five victories so far.
That does not mean, however, that they are tactically rigid and Sanchez started with five at the back to effectively nullify Korean’s wide threat in the quarter-final. Al-Rawi and midfielder Abdulaziz Hatim, who scored the winner against the Koreans, are suspended after picking up two yellow cards but Assim Madibo and fullback Abdelkarim Hassan will be available after one-match bans.
Qatar coach Felix Sanchez (right) and one of his assistants keep an close eye on the players during the training session in Abu Dhabi.