When Qatar takes on Iran on Thursday, it will desperately be trying to avoid the humiliation of an early exit from the 2015 Asian Cup.Not only did the Qatari national team arrive in Australia with the hope — albeit slim — of winning the continental tournament, it was looking to take another step for what could be just as difficult a task: qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Qatar is preparing to host the 2022 World Cup, and while that has brought well-documented controversies off the field, it has meant added pressure for its national team, too. In the modern era, no nation has hosted the World Cup without having qualified for at least one previous tournament.
Qatar has yet to appear in the World Cup finals. It fell in the final round of qualification for the 2014 competition, a campaign that ended with a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Uzbekistan.
For Qatar, qualifying for Russia is not just about avoiding an unwanted first, but getting invaluable global experience that will help the national team on home soil four years later.
The 2015 Asian Cup, being held in Australia for the first time, is therefore not only significant in its own right, but seen as vital for Qatar as it prepares for the future. Before it headed to the competition, the Qatar Football Association was targeting a spot in the semifinals after reaching the quarterfinals when it hosted the 2011 Asian Cup.
“The Asian Cup is very important for us to prepare to qualify for the 2018 World Cup,” said Qatar Coach Djamel Belmadi, who in November led the team to the title at the Gulf Cup of Nations, west Asia’s biennial tournament. “People used to ask me about how important the Gulf Cup and ask whether that was good preparation for the Asian Cup and whether the Asian Cup is good preparation for the World Cup. This tournament is interesting to see where we are at and to compare ourselves against the best teams in Asia. If we perform well, it will also be good for our confidence.”
Confidence was high coming into the Asian Cup for the team, which isranked No. 92 in the world and sixth in Asia. From October 2013 to the team’s arrival in Australia in late December, the national team had lost just once in 22 games and was regarded as having an outside chance to win the continental tournament for the first time.
2014 was perhaps the best year in the team’s history. It started in January with a win in the West Asian Football Federation Championship and ended with a triumph in the more prestigious Gulf Cup. With qualification for the 2018 World Cup due to start in Asia later in 2015, it was looking good for Qatar.
Its group in the Asian Cup — with regional rivals Iran, Bahrain and its opening-game opponent, United Arab Emirates — was regarded as tough but passable. It still is, but progressing to the knockout stage is looking much more difficult after a 4-1 defeat in the opening game here in Canberra.
On a cool Sunday evening, against perhaps its biggest regional rival, Qatar took the lead thanks to an exquisite lob from its talented attacker, Khalfan Ibrahim. But then Qatar’s defense and goalkeeper struggled and fell apart as the talented Emirates team scored four times. It could have been worse.
After the game, U.A.E. midfielder Khamis Esmail remarked that the game had been “easy,” sentiments echoed by Michael Cockerill, a respected soccer columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald. “Qatar was surprisingly poor,” Cockerill said in an interview. “I was a little surprised at the technical level of some players. I expected better.”
Against Iran, Qatar will need to show that it just suffered a bad stretch of 90 minutes after 18 months of success. “The buildup to this suggests that Qatar knows how to win and the good results will have increased confidence,” Cockerill added. “It is just a question of how much that confidence has been damaged by the loss to U.A.E. To win the Asian Cup though, they have to improve by 300 percent.”
For Qatar defender Mohammed Musa, the Asian Cup is a chance for the team to grow. “Our group is a young group, and we are trying our best to gain experience by playing against these big teams in Asia,” Musa said. “We hope as we work toward the World Cup qualifiers that we can get better levels of experience from each game we play.”
A loss Thursday in Sydney to Iran, the group favorite, would almost certainly end Qatar’s chances of reaching the knockout stage. Iran, led by the former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, picked up a comfortable win over Bahrain in its first Asian Cup game.
The Egyptian journalist Abdelaziz Abuhamar of the Qatari newspaper Estad Al Doha said that short-term setbacks would not deflect the team’s long-term ambitions. “To qualify for the 2018 World is a must for Qatar,” Abuhamar said. “The strategy is to do well in each and every tournament. The Asian Cup is an important point for them to know that they are doing what it takes to qualify for the World Cup.
“Qatar wants to be at 2018, and that can be felt everywhere in the country and the media. Qatar doesn’t see 2022 as a normal football event. Officials there see it as part of the strategy of a nation-building process.”
Cockerill believes that qualifying for Russia is a possibility. “Of course they have a chance. The Asian qualification process is long, and you are allowed a few bad days at the office.”
Coaches, though, often are not, especially in western Asia. Despite Belmadi’s success since taking the job in February, the position of the 38-year-old Algerian could be under threat should the team return to Doha after the final group game on Monday against Bahrain, seen as the weakest team of the group.
It all rests on the game with Iran.
“We are already under pressure because we lost the game, so we have to make a massive game on Thursday,” Belmadi said. “We will not give up even if it’s a really bad start, and it is really bad no doubt about that, but we will have a good reaction.”