The glittering gold confetti that heralded Qatar’s Asian Cup win on Friday had hardly fallen back to earth before the next challenge was being discussed.
For most countries, winning a continental championship would spark days of celebrations and rewards aplenty for the gallant coach and heroes on the pitch. But most countries are not Qatar and World Cup 2022 hosts.
Coach Felix Sanchez and his players will, no doubt, indulge themselves – they have, after all, more than earned it by becoming the ninth different winners of the Asian Cup with a 3-1 triumph over Japan in Abu Dhabi.But then it will be back to work.
“This is one step more to continue developing the team, to play another tournament in the summer, and be ready for 2022, to be a competitive team at the World Cup,” said Sanchez.
It is less than four years to the next World Cup, and as hosts, Qatar do not need to qualify. This, however, is a double-edged sword, with a lack of competitive games a problem after they play as guests in the Copa America this June.
“We are working on (the) target (of the) 2022 World Cup,” said striker Almoez Ali, who added the individual honours of top scorer and most valuable player to his winners medal.
“We started now with the Asian Cup and managed to defeat Japan today. We’re preparing for it first with the Copa America in Brazil – we’re not expected to win that but just to learn in football.
“The weakest teams are in Asia – in the Copa America, we will learn more, we know the teams there have a different level. We will learn a lot there that will benefit us as a team.”
Ali is only 22 and one of 14 players in Sanchez’s squad aged 25 or under.
Qatar’s rush to be competitive following the World Cup award in 2010 was initially counterproductive. Coaches changed rapidly and there was little structure to the development of players.
Bit by bit that changed, aided by substantial investment and the long-term goal being placed above quick fixes. The decision to promote Sanchez, a long-term youth coach in the country, to the senior team was also inspired.
The Spaniard has known and worked with the majority of the squad for several years, many of them of since they were children.
Ali is one example and with a tournament record nine goals will hog the headlines.
Sanchez has continually stressed the team rather than the individual with everyone doing their job.
Creative forward Akram Afif, 21, was involved in an astonishing 12 of the team’s 19 goals in the United Arab Emirates, including all three in the final – scoring a late penalty having set up the other two.
“We have been together for seven years, I know Akram, where he will pass, and he knows what to expect from me,” Ali said. “We get on very well together.”
Qatar defeated Lebanon, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, South Korea, the UAE and Japan to lift the trophy with a tournament record plus-18 goal difference. They were undeniably the best team but, as Ali said, Asia is weak - only Japan made it out of the group stage at the last World Cup.
South America is a different proposition and facing Colombia, Paraguay and Argentina will give a much better indicator of just how much work remains to be done for this Qatar side.
“(Their performance was) not a surprise for me, we knew Qatar can have a tight defence and strength in attack,” said beaten Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu. “They can move the ball and create chances, I think the head coach is building a great team for the World Cup.”
Whether Sanchez gets the chance to stay in the post that long remains to be seen.
Rumours have linked big-name coaches to the job, and with the incentive of a home World Cup along with the ability to pay huge wages, Qatar face few restrictions in choosing their boss.
That, however, was where Sanchez was happy to draw the line about the future.
“I’m only thinking about today, it’s a great day for me, the players, and the country,” he said. “There can be news, this person, this person (linked to the job) – we’re thinking about our work. 2022 is in three years’ time. In football you don’t know what will happen in two weeks.”
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