More than a decade ago, when FIFA made the controversial decision to stage the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, myriad issues moved to the forefront, ranging from heat to human rights.
As World Cup host, though, the national team would receive a free pass to the 32-team competition and, by extension, carry the burden of showing it belonged. Only once has the home team failed to advance out of group play (South Africa in 2010).
With the tournament now less than 16 months away, Qatar is making strides. On Thursday, the Maroon will make a surprise appearance in the Concacaf Gold Cup semifinals against the United States in Austin. The winner will face Mexico or Canada in Sunday’s final in Las Vegas.
As the only outsider in the 16-team regional tournament, Qatar won Group D with two victories and a draw, then defeated El Salvador, 3-2, in the quarterfinals Saturday in Glendale, Ariz. No team has scored more than Qatar’s 12 goals in the tournament.
“We are trying to prepare a team to be ready to play the World Cup. That is why the country set up a plan where we can challenge” teams outside Qatar’s region, Félix Sánchez — a Spaniard who has coached the 58th-ranked squad for four years — said Wednesday. “We are improving things. We realize we need to improve other things; that’s why we are here. In games like the one we will play tomorrow, it will be another chance for us to show how prepared we are.”
Unrelated to World Cup qualifying, this biennial event decides the champion of North and Central America and the Caribbean. So why is a Middle Eastern team taking part?
It’s not uncommon for regional championships such as the Gold Cup and Copa America (the South American competition) to invite guests. Brazil advanced to Gold Cup final in 1996 and 2003, and South Korea was a Gold Cup guest six months before it co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan.
Qatar and Japan were invited to the 2019 Copa America in Brazil. While those invitations provided a workable number of teams for group play (12 instead of 10), Qatar’s entry into the Gold Cup came at the expense of a Concacaf member. Early this month, three qualifying slots were available instead of four.
Aside from providing competition for Qatar, the tournament offered a marketing platform for the country in the run-up to the World Cup, which will take place in November-December 2022.
State-run Qatar Airways is the Gold Cup’s official airline partner and the primary sponsor of Fox Sports coverage. The airline’s logo is splashed on the network’s studio during pregame, halftime and postgame shows.
With a sudden programming gap Saturday, Fox put the Qatar-El Salvador match on its national broadcast channel — a massive platform for two small programs. (Fox Sports is also the English-language U.S. rights holder for the World Cup.)
Qatar is also contracted to play in the 2023 Gold Cup and the airline will sponsor the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League, a newer competition.
Leading to the World Cup, the Maroon is also gaining experience against European teams. It was unofficially placed in a World Cup qualifying group to serve as an opponent when one of the five teams is off. Qatar beat Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, drew with Ireland and will face Serbia and group favorite Portugal in September.
“Since we are playing in the World Cup, it will be good to play other styles of football,” Sánchez said before the Gold Cup began. “It will be good for us to get this experience and to improve our international level.”
Sánchez, 45, was hired for the Qatari sports academy in 2006 after working in FC Barcelona’s youth system. He guided Qatar’s under-19, U-20 and U-23 programs before taking the reins of the senior squad. In the Asian Cup, the Maroon swept seven matches and did concede a goal until the 3-1 upset over Japan in the final.
Almoez Ali, a 22-year-old attacker at the time, led the tournament with nine goals. In the Gold Cup, he has scored a tournament-leading four times.
Ali and all 22 teammates play for clubs in the modest Qatar Stars League. Extended employment in the top pro division paved the way for several foreign-born players to gain citizenship, including defenders Pedro “Ró-Ró” Correia (Portugal) and Boualem Khoukhi (Algeria), midfielder Karim Boudiaf (France) and forward Mohammed Muntari (Ghana).
An unknown entering the Gold Cup, Qatar has played attractive, attacking soccer. In the quarterfinals, it scored twice early and led 3-0 before conceding two goals and several subsequent threats.
To this point, the Maroon’s highest-ranked opponent was No. 67 Honduras. The No. 20 Americans will provide a stiffer test.
“Qatar deserves to be in the semis,” U.S. midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “They are a good, counterattacking team. They are dangerous. They’ve got quality players. I like our chances. It’s going to be a fun game and a difficult one.”
Read more on soccer: