x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Qatar and Lebanon are two nations with one World Cup goal in mind

The good news for Qatar is that they are the only Asian country currently guaranteed a World Cup spot. The bad news? That spot is not theirs for another 10 years.

Lebanon lost 1-0 to Qatar when they met in June.
Lebanon lost 1-0 to Qatar when they met in June.

The good news for Qatar is that they are the only Asian country currently guaranteed a World Cup spot. The bad news? That spot is not theirs for another 10 years, when the country becomes the first Arab nation to host the tournament.

It is an exaggeration to call this 2014 World Cup qualifier against Lebanon the most important in the country's history.

But not much of one.

The two nations share the bottom spot of Group A, with four points each, and the margin of error for both countries is slim.

For one of the teams, however, failure could have severe consequences. Having won the right to hold the 2022 World Cup, Qatar's desire - its desperate need, in fact - to show that it is a growing regional football power is far more urgent than is Lebanon's.

The clock is ticking and a sceptical world is watching.

Win tomorrow and the prospect of reaching the finals in Brazil, and fulfilling that desire, edges nearer.

Lose, and Russia 2018 becomes the next, and final, opportunity to ensure they don't become the first nation never to have appeared in a World Cup tournament before hosting it.

Qatar's resources dwarf those of Lebanon, and yet tomorrow the two meet as equals.

In theory, they should not.

Mathematically, a defeat will not be the end of the road for Qatar, with South Korea and Iran on seven points and Uzbekistan on five, in Group A. But it would continue a series of inconsistent results that would be hard to reverse.

Their four points came from a 1-0 victory in Beirut and draw in Tehran. However, they have two defeats in Doha, a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of South Korea and, last month, a 1-0 loss to Uzbekistan.

A difficult tie away to South Korea follows in March, and another home defeat tomorrow would leave Qatar in deep trouble.

Their interest in qualifying could become academic.

It is a not a scenario the country's football authorities would have envisaged just under two years ago as Fifa awarded them the 2022 World Cup amid jubilant scenes.

Since then, and for several years before, no effort or cost has been spared into turning Qatar into a regional football hub. In 2003, subsidies to the tune of US$10 million (Dh36.7m) per club in the Qatar Stars League (QSL) attracted the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Pep Guardiola to the country.

The Aspire Academy, established in 2004, now has a number of Football Talent Centers throughout Doha hoping to unearth the country's future football stars from boys between the ages of six and 11. Foreign players continue to be drawn to the QSL and several, including a Brazilian defender, a Ghana midfielder and a Uruguayan striker, have been granted Qatari citizenship, enabling them to represent the country internationally. And millions of dollars will be spent on state-of-the-art stadiums for 2022.

This progress is now in danger of being derailed if Qatar fail to qualify for the next World Cup.

Progress has been muted on two important fronts. On the field Qatar's national team has regressed in recent years. The Gulf Cup of Nations has not been won since it was held at home in 2004. And at the 2011 Asian Cup, also held in Qatar, the hosts were eliminated in the first knockout stage. At several youth levels results have also dipped. Aspire may be looking for the stars of 2022 but the current crop has yet to set a high standard.

Also, attendances at that Asian Cup last year were dismal, the lowest the competition had seen in the 11 years since it was held in Lebanon.

The national team has played in front of home crowds of only 10,730 and 11,260 in this round of Brazil 2014 qualifying.

It is on the pitch that results need to improve immediately, and the home match against Lebanon is as convenient as can be imagined.

Lebanon are in a perilous situation themselves, having lost 1-0 to Qatar in Beirut before dropping more home points in a 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan.

A 3-0 away loss to South Korea left their campaign in tatters before an encouraging 1-0 home win over Iran revitalised hopes.

Arguably, their remaining fixtures are even tougher than are Qatar's.

With South Korea not in action tomorrow, and Uzbekistan and Iran set to take points off each other in their clash at Tehran, the clash in Doha provides one of the last opportunities for the two Arab teams.

It is a match that Lebanon would dearly love to win. But it is one that Qatar dare not lose.

akhaled@thenational.ae