Qatar in the Copa America?
Is there a more polarising football nation than Qatar? The appearance of corruption in their World Cup appointment, controversies surrounding labour conditions at construction sites, their unexpected success in the 2019 Asian Championship campaign. It's difficult not to be suspicious. Regardless, the country is taking another ambitious step by accepting an invitation to compete in this summer's edition of the Copa America.
While this is the Gulf nation's first invitation, it is not the first extended by Conmebol. The South American confederation comprises only 10 nations. In tournaments, that's an awkward number. They could divide into two groups of five, play four matches from which the top three in each group advance to the knockout stage with group winners receiving a bye into the semifinals but that isn't as lucrative as inviting outsiders.
For one, it draws interest from beyond the continent. South American football doesn't boast the global presence of its European rivals. Inviting nations like the United States, Mexico and Japan gives Conmebol inroads to large markets.
In addition, it's an opportunity to put players in the shop window. All three countries and recruit heavily from the South American talent pool. Brazil and Argentina are the leading exporters with Uruguay not far behind. The Copa gives foreigners a look at young players from elsewhere. The Gulf leagues import their share of South American talent but inviting Qatar gives South America a competitive edge over African nations.
With the exception of the expanded Copa America Centenario that took place in the United States with 16 teams, Conmebol typically invites two nations to increase the field to twelve teams divided into three groups. The top two from each advance along with the two best third-placed sides. Japan joins Qatar in the guest quarters for this tournament. Next year, when the competition switches to even-numbered years, daring to compete with the Euros, Qatar will return along with Australia.
Qatar played seven competitive games in January's Asian Championship, winning every one. Their last defeat came in December 2017, 2-1 to Iraq. That result serves as a minor blemish on manager Felix Sanchez’s record, sullying the 18 victories and eight draws achieved since he took the job in July 2017. Having won silverware with both the senior side and the U19s, the Barcelona-born coach is a cult icon in the country.
Accusations that Qatar isn't a footballing nation, stemming from their surprise appointment as 2022 World Cup hosts, don't stand up to the facts. All the Gulf nations play in a bounty of competitions at both club and international levels. Proper investment spent with more wisdom has brought the nation to the fore. That and the fear of embarrassment when the World Cup finally arrives in Doha.
Is it realistic to expect the Asian Champions to impose themselves in Copa America? On the one hand, no one anticipated they would win their own tournament. On the other, South America isn't Asia.
Qatar’s group comprises Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay. Only the latter rank lower than the visitors. That said, FIFA rates Paraguay at 36th. Qatar leaped all the way from 56th to 29th with their Asian Championship triumph. Argentina and Colombia rank 11th and 12th respectively.
In the Asian Cup knockout rounds, Qatar ousted Iran, South Korea and Japan, all three World Cup nations. None, however, hold a candle to Argentina and Colombia. Qatar's status soared when they won the tournament on home soil while conceding just the one goal but playing in South America against Conmebol sides is completely different.
The weather will still be warm but far more humid in Brazil's Amazon Basin. It won't be England but rain is eight times more likely in Samba Nation. The temperature will be 20ºF lower. Even so, Qatari players used to the dry heat may be uncomfortable in the humidity.
The player to watch will be Almoez Ali. With nine goals to lead the Asian Cup, he sealed his status as footballing royalty in Doha. Rumour has it he will test Europe before the World Cup.
Hassan Al-Haydos is the captain. With appearances in all three group stage matches, he'll match Sebastian Soria's mark for caps in the country. The Uruguayan striker converted to Qatari citizenship early in his career and appeared for the country 123 times. At 26, Al-Haydos can expect to leave that mark well behind and appear in the 2022 World Cup.
The entire squad plays in the Qatari Stars League. It's an advantage that the South American sides, whose players are spread around the globe do not enjoy. Focus and cohesion may take Qatar further than expected in the competition.
In a pre-tournament friendly in Brasilia, the squad learned how tough it will be to make an impression on the Copa. Brazil cruised to a 2-0 victory. The tournament hosts bossed the ball as you'd anticipate, limiting Qatar to a single shot on target.
Argentina and Colombia present similar challenges. Playing for draws against la Albiceleste and Los Cafeteros is probably the most pragmatic approach. Meanwhile, Felix knows his team have every chance to beat Paraguay. Should the backline keep the scores respectable against Lionel Messi and Radamael Falcao, the quarterfinals should beckon. From there, it's the luck of the draw.