There will be an air of expectation when Qatar take a big step into the unknown as they take on Paraguay in the Copa America today at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana Stadium, a venue that has been witness to dreams being made and crushed in equal measure. The match will begin at 10pm Qatar Time.
It was at the Maracana – reportedly in front of 250,000 spectators – that Uruguay beat the odds to shock Brazil 2-1 in the final of the 1950 FIFA World Cup. It was considered a national tragedy for Brazil but it was also an occasion that stirred the heart of a 10-year-old boy in Bauru, almost 800 kilometres away from Brazil’s most famous city known for its annual carnival, the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, a throbbing nightlife besides its sprawling, dusty and yet colourful favelas.
The 10-year-old boy was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, later Pele, whose father, Joao, had planned a big celebration in anticipation of a Brazilian win as friends and relatives gathered at his house to listen to the commentary on radio. The outcome of the match however was too much for the club player, who broke down inconsolably much to the bewilderment of the young Edson who had always thought his father was a tough man.
“I didn’t know why he was crying because he had told me that men don’t cry,” Pele often recalled later. At a loss to calm his father down, Edson made a spur-of-the-moment promise. “Don’t cry papi (dad), one day I will win the World Cup for you.”
The rest is history as eight years later, Pele, not yet 18, took the World Cup by storm in Sweden, powering Brazil to the title with a string of spectacular goals the kind of which were rarely seen before in the history of the tournament.
He scored a hat-trick in the semi-final against France and struck twice against Sweden in the final in a 5-2 victory. He was so overcome by emotion after the match that he passed out and had to be revived by Garrincha.
It’s quite possible that a Qatari player must have made a similar vow about winning the Copa America, or at least about scoring a few goals and making a fight out of it.
As one of the two guest teams at the tournament – the other being Japan – it will be a wholly new experience for Qatar, who have mostly played their competitive football in Asia although they have often featured in friendly matches against teams outside of the continent.
Under Felix Sanchez, they are certainly not there to just make up the numbers. They beat the tournament odds and hostile conditions to win the Asian Cup earlier this year in the UAE and as the next World Cup hosts are morally bound to raise their level a few notches – the Copa this year and next being a great opportunity to do so.
In fact, coach Sanchez is emphatic in his view that participation in the Copa America would make Qatar a better side in the build-up to Qatar 2022.
“You have to always focus on your overriding goal. The state of Qatar is heading towards a historic event: hosting the 2022 World Cup. We need to make sure the squad are in top form and up to the nation’s expectations. This means that we’ll not be participating just for its own sake, but that we’re determined to leave our mark on World Cup history, especially since this will be Qatar’s first World Cup,” the Spaniard said recently.
“Our group includes Argentina, whose abilities are well known, and Colombia, who are exceptionally good performers, whether at World Cups or the Copa America. Paraguay also boast a pedigreed history. So, I believe these matches will serve as an important staging post for me and the players. They’ll tell us where we currently stand and what we need to do in the next phase.”
Former Copa champions Paraguay have not been in top form of late, winning only one of their previous six matches, against Guatemala. Even that performance was lacklustre, however, as they failed to display any flair or innovation.
Qatar, on the other hand, have nothing to fear. Having accounted for teams such as Asian giants Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan on their way to the Asian title, they will be itching to showcase their skills on South American soil.
With the likes of the dashing Akram Afif, the languid Almoez Ali and their inspirational captain Hassan al-Haydos in their ranks, they have the firepower to win three points against the Paraguayans, one of the weakest sides in the tournament.
But Paraguay have a new manager in Argentine Eduardo Berrizo, who was with Sevilla earlier. Berrizo had represented Argentina in two Copa America tournaments – in 1997 and 1999, and although he didn’t get to play any matches, his experience cannot be discounted.
Qatar will have to watch out for attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, who is contracted to play for Newcastle. He is their key player who is known for his creativity and speed and could be a handful for the Qatari defence. He could form a deadly pair along with striker Oscar Cardozo, who has already scored 11 goals for Paraguay.
Qatar put up a tough fight against Brazil in a friendly earlier this month, missing a penalty and several other chances before going down 2-0. A win against Paraguay, therefore, is not beyond them if they play to their potential.
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