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How lowly Qatar reached a shock Asian Cup football final – and why this makes its other failures so glaring

The country can briefly bask in the glow of sporting success instead of fending off criticism about its treatment of immigrants

Simon Chadwick
Friday 01 February 2019 09:35 GMT
Local fans show their displeasure as Qatar beat UAE in asian cup semi final

The Qatari men’s football team will play in the 2019 Asian Cup Final today, the first time in the country’s history this has happened. Having beaten neighbours the United Arab Emirates, Qatar will battle Japan for trophy – some feat for a country with a population of just under three million people (of which around only ten per cent is native Qatari).

The achievement is even more impressive when one considers that the country only secured independence from Britain in 1971, at which point most of it was still desert. The country is currently at 93 in FIFA's world rankings, one spot behind Trinidad and Tobago and just ahead of Benin.

For the time being at least, Qatar can bask in the glow of football success instead of needing to fend off criticism about its treatment of immigrant workers or fight its feuds with regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Yet it is, in part, due to football that Qatar has become embroiled in all manner of controversy. Beginning with its unexpected securing of hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup, allegations have swirled that Doha bought the tournament.

This dogged the early years of Qatar’s initial tournament preparations, nothing appears to have been proven. But the problems have continued, not least in concerns about the treatment of immigrants employed as construction workers on World Cup infrastructure projects.

Even the Qatari national team’s latest victory has not been without its challenges. Critics believe the national team’s successes are down to the country’s harvesting and naturalisation of overseas talent. Indeed, during the Asian Cup, Qatar has been forced to provide evidence about the nationality of some of its players.

And then there is the Gulf regional feud. Now almost two years old, Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar has been fractious and divisive. In a first round Asian Cup match, the two adversaries came head-to-head, though the on-field confrontation passed off quietly.

The semi-final against Saudi’s closest ally, the UAE, was a different matter. The Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi was packed with local fans, many of whom had been admitted free.

It was no surprise therefore that boos drowned out the pre-game playing of Qatar’s national anthem. When the Qatari goals were scored, UAE fans threw their shoes onto the field, in a show of disdain. At the end of the match, bottles were thrown at the small number of visiting supporters who were present.

For all the travails in Qatar’s journey from barren desert to Asian Cup Finalists and World Cup hosts, something significant nevertheless seems to be emerging. The national team has impressed at this tournament, standing out even by comparison with Asian aristocracy, such as Japan.

This suggests the country’s talent acquisition and development strategies are delivering their intended outcomes. Whatever you think about player harvesting, measures such as the creation of the Aspire Academy on the outskirts of Doha and the purchase of Belgian club KAS Eupen (as a vehicle through which to hone Qatari players’ skills) are bearing fruit.

Ambitious Qatar has long-been big on a vision, but often far less accomplished in implementing plans. The Tour of Qatar cycling race fell victim to financial problems, while the World Handball Championship (staged there in 2015) struggled to fill venues.

Getting the national team through to the final of Asian football’s biggest tournament may be a sign things are changing. Perhaps Qatar is a completer-finisher after all and not just a gas-rich dreamer. Indeed, one currently gets the sense of a national plan finally coming together.

If this is true, it raises the heat once more on the government in Doha. If it can secure hosting rights to major sports competitions (the World Athletics Championship is heading there this year) and successfully get its football teams into important finals, then why on earth is it still failing to address worker exploitation despite the full glare of the world’s ravenous media?

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