Qatar may have a World Cup to host in 2022, but their team must now show their worth.
Time to step up on the field
Qatar may have a World Cup to host in 2022, but their team must now show their worth, writes Michael Casey
Ranked only ahead of India in the 16-team tournament, Qatar will have to tap into some of the excitement and expectation around the successful World Cup bid as they attempt to progress past the group stages of the Asian Cup for just the second time in their history.
The tiny desert nation's team have lost to the likes of Haiti in recent months and dropped to 114th in the Fifa world rankings, leaving the likes of three-time winners Saudi Arabia and improving sides such as Kuwait and the UAE to carry the Gulf's hopes into the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Still, Qatar's charismatic coach Bruno Metsu, who led the UAE during their failed qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, insists his team should not be taken lightly ahead of their opening match against the dangerous central Asians Uzbekistan tomorrow after they recently upset Egypt and beat Estonia in friendly matches.
Qatar are also grouped Kuwait and the under-performing China, which gives them some chance of advancing.
"We won against Egypt, we won against Estonia and we drew against Iran. These are very tough teams," Metsu said in an interview posted on the Asian Football Confederation website.
Despite their standing, Qatar have had success in the past and reached as high as 58th in the Fifa rankings. They won the Gulf Cup in 2004 and the Asian Games gold medal in 2006.
"Our goal is to reach the final match," said Said al Massnad, an assistant coach for Qatar. "As for the keys for success, it all depends on two important elements. The first is the support we get from the people since this championship will be held on their land and the second element is luck."
Even if Qatar falter on the field, Gulf football fans can expect one of their neighbours to make a good run in the tournament. The most likely are Saudi Arabia who lost to Iraq in the final in 2007 and last won the tournament in 1996. They were also runners-up in 2000.
Spearheaded by striker Yasser "the sniper" al Qahtani, the team has long had one of the most potent attacks of any Gulf team. But they struggled to score goals on their way to losing to Kuwait in the Gulf Cup final in December, after having beaten the UAE in the semis, and have dropped in the world rankings from 48th in December 2008 to 81st.
"We would like to be the first Asian team to win the championship four times, and this is possible for the team," coach Jose Peseiro said on the Saudi football federation website, dismissing complaints about the team's tepid attack.
"I always play aggressively, and in the Gulf Cup final we were close to scoring against Kuwait," said the Portuguese tactician, who coached several big clubs in Europe including Greek side Panathinaikos. "We had the ball and attacked us but we could not win. I will continue to play the same method that I know."
Kuwait's Gulf Cup victory has given them momentum coming into the tournament and a belief that they can rekindle the glory days when they won the Asian Cup in 1976 and finished second in 1980. The team's good run has continued in recent weeks, with victories over Zambia and North Korea.
"The group where Kuwait's team is playing is a strong one," coach Abdul-Aziz Hamada said. "But the Kuwait team is capable of qualifying from the group given our high morale after capturing the title in the Gulf Cup."
Nawaf al Khaldi, the Kuwait captain, said he is most worried about the team's group match on January 17 against Qatar given that they are "playing on their home ground and among their supporters."
"I imagine the match would be vengeful because the Qatari team lost to Kuwait in Yemen," he said. "Now they are hoping to take revenge."
The UAE - who lost to the Saudis in the 1996 final - have some of the best young players in the Gulf and the hope is that the Emirates can be the surprise package at the tournament. The Under 23 side won silver at the Asian Games after a 1-0 loss to Japan.
Bahrain, meanwhile, have seen their hopes undermined by injuries and a sudden departure of coach Josef Hickersberger, who returned to Al Wahda, in October after three months in charge. After coming close to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, their expectations in Doha have been dampened by the loss of captain Mohammed Salmeen, to a broken leg, and injuries to several others in their squad.
Jordan and Syria are likely to be easy pickings in their group, which includes the Saudis and east Asian heavywieghts Japan. The two minnows - ranked 104th and 107th respectively - have never done much on the international stage and there are few signs that will change this time around.
Osama Talal, Jordan's coach, said: "We know that are chances are limited in winning the Asia Cup, but our young players will do their best to achieve good results."