It is a mark of how far Qatar have come that the team and the nation are disappointed to only reach fourth place in a major Asian tournament. It is natural to feel down after just missing out on a place in the 2016 Rio Olympics but there were plenty of encouraging signs to take from the team’s performance at the Asian Under-23 Championship.
Until the semi-final, the competition could not have gone better for Felix Sanchez and his men. Three games in the group stage brought three wins, the first of which – a 3-1 victory over China – saw Qatar score one of the goals of the tournament. It was a goal that reminded of Manchester United in their Sir Alex Ferguson pomp, a swift counter-attack that started on the edge of the Chinese box.
Rockets from outside the area can happen at any level, at any time – swing a boot, connect in the right place, and it can fly right in, though of course the better the player, the bigger the chance. Yet that third goal, that was different. It exemplified a well-drilled team of well-coached players, full of confidence.
Qatar’s semi-final defeat against South Korea was no disgrace. This is a nation that, in football terms, is what Qatar aspires to be. The Taeguk Warriors are at every World Cup – playing in the last eight in a row – and have now made a record eighth Olympic games. More than that, when Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002, they reached the last four. Emulating that achievement would go down very well in Doha in 2022.
There was a ruthlessness about Shin Tae-yong’s men that the hosts didn’t quite have – though there were chances to take the tie, the ticket to Rio and the final. Then came the third-place play-off loss to Iraq. It was of course a major disappointment but then Iraq have an excellent record in this competition, they were the defending champions after all.
Overall, the tournament showed that Qatar are moving in the right direction. Compared to the senior team, these youngsters were a little more adventurous and aggressive, a little more fluid. The likes of Abdelkarim Hassan, who scored four goals, and the competition’s top scorer Ahmed Alaa (6), impressed greatly.
With so many players coming through the Aspire Academy – the influence was apparent last month with 21 out of the 23 players from the facility – and with a coach in Sanchez who boasts experience at Barcelona’s youth academy, it should be no surprise that there is an identity emerging.
The identity certainly reminds of Barca. The players treat the ball with respect, move it around quickly, work hard to get it back and look very comfortable in possession.
Sanchez spent time working with Qatar’s youth teams at Aspire, as part of his role of the academy’s senior football coach, before leading the Under-19s to the 2014 Asian title. Helped by a large and well-trained staff, it is not hard to see the benefits of a coach who applies a consistent coaching philosophy with young players over an extended period of time.
It is an ideal that should be applied with much more frequency at clubs in Qatar, as well as elsewhere in the region: clubs and country pulling in the same philosophical direction.
With success at the U19 level and encouraging performances at the U23 tournament, Sanchez has made a difference. With the 2022 World Cup now appearing on the horizon, it is not just that the players who impressed in January will be in their prime but they will have had years of playing together and years of dealing with the same or similar coaches.
Appearing at the Olympics is a valuable experience in its own right and would have been welcome international competition for the young Qataris, the kind that is hard to find outside of the World Cup itself. That was the plan: the 2016 Olympics, the 2018 World Cup, the 2019 Asian Cup, the 2020 Olympics and then the big one.
That is not going to happen but still, there is a lot of football to be played over the next six years. For now, the senior side needs to focus on qualification for the 2018 World Cup. It is the dream target and on recent evidence, there is enough young talent already there or bubbling just under the surface, to suggest that the future is looking good.