HONG KONG (Reuters) - Qatar will take a huge stride into the unknown when they host the World Cup in 2022 but coach Felix Sanchez is confident the players will gain enough experience in the lead-up to the showpiece event to not get overawed at their first finals appearance.
The tiny Gulf state, one of the world’s richest nations, missed out on qualifying for Russia this summer, ensuring Qatar will make their debut appearance at the tournament when they host the competition in just under five years’ time.
But with a multifaceted plan in place to prepare their players between now and when the finals kick off in November 2022, Spanish coach Sanchez believes the players will be ready.
“We know from history that it’s difficult to qualify for the World Cup,” said Sanchez, who serves as head coach of the country’s senior national team and under-23 side.
“We faced the last stage with all the motivation to go there, but we couldn’t make it.
“To play in Russia would have been a good experience ahead of the next one, but I’m pretty sure they will have enough knowledge and experience to face this with the right mood to play in this competition.”
In 11 attempts to qualify for the World Cup, Qatar have gone close just twice, with their most recent near-miss coming ahead of the 1998 finals when a narrow defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia cost the nation a place in France.
Despite their lack of a World Cup track record, Qatar were controversially awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 tournament in December 2010, prompting authorities to improve an already burgeoning development set-up.
Before the successful hosting bid, Qatar, with help from the Aspire Academy, had the infrastructure to produce a team capable of challenging at the top levels in Asia.
Just two years after Aspire’s inauguration, Qatar won the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games under-23 football tournament on home soil in Doha, showing signs of a bright future.
But while that early promise has gone unfulfilled, Qatar’s up-and-coming generation have tasted some success.
The country won the Asian Under-19 Championship in 2014 and reached the semi-finals of the Asian Under-23 Championship in both 2016 and 2018, underlining that the development work was bearing fruit even though the senior side were struggling.
Further moves to improve the country’s chances of success saw Qatar’s sporting authorities purchase Belgian first division side Eupen and Cultural Leonesa in Spain’s second division, with several World Cup hopefuls already sent to gain experience.
“We know that in Europe the quality of football is very high and professional,” said Sanchez.
“In our country we have a very good plan and a good league, but it’s good to send these young players to Europe, to feel what is the level in the first division in Belgium or the second division in Spain. They’re both very good levels.
“It gives them the opportunity to grow as players and so far we are trying different players there and all the experiences have been very positive and that’s the most important thing.”
Sanchez is hoping the experience will begin to pay off when he leads the senior team to the finals of the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates as the final drive towards the 2022 World Cup commences.
“We have to push the players to get better and better,” he said. “In one year there is the Asian Cup in the Emirates, in 2019, and this is another good test to see our players, not the youth but the national team.
“We hope the players are going to keep working hard and this will be a big motivation for them to continue their work.
“To play a good Asian Cup, and also if we can qualify for the Olympic Games, this will be very good for the players, to get the experience and to get the confidence that we can compete against all of the top national teams.”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly