Marooned after World Cup misery, Qatar turn to canny Carlos Queiroz | Qatar

Given the consternation in Qatari football about the focus on off-pitch issues by sections of the international media during the World Cup, perhaps it is no surprise that Carlos Queiroz was appointed as the country’s head coach in February. The spiky septuagenarian was last seen on the global stage attacking western journalists for asking non-football questions, actions that went down well in parts of the world, including Doha.

Given the on-pitch disaster that unfolded at the World Cup with three losses in three games, the federation may think they should have appointed him a little earlier. The World Cup spotlight has left Doha but the country’s football struggles have continued. Last month the Qatar Stars League leaders, Al Duhail, made it to the last four of the Asian Champions League, giving themselves a chance to become the country’s first finalist since 2011. Also playing at home, they were thrashed 7-0 by Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal.

Days later the Under-20 Asian Cup was a chance to show that the investment in youth made over the years had paid off. Yet it also ended with zero points from three games, with the final defeat a 9-1 thrashing by Australia (led by the well-travelled English coach Trevor Morgan). “We were not able to cope with the demands of the game,” said Qatar’s coach, Iñaki Abadia. “We have no excuses. We need to look inside, at what went wrong in this process.” Similar words could have come from the World Cup manager, Félix Sánchez, or Al Duhail’s Hernán Crespo.

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Four years ago Qatar were in football dreamland. The Maroons had been dominant in winning the 2019 Asian Cup, scoring 19 goals and conceding one as they defeated the traditional continental powers Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan on their way to lifting the trophy for the first time.

Almoez Ali scored nine, a tournament record, Akram Afif was sublime in creating chances and there were others. Asian football had several new stars and a new force. They were then competitive at the Copa América a few months later and impressed in the Concacaf Gold Cup in 2021, winning their group and losing their semi-final 1-0 to the USA as Ali became top scorer at a second international tournament.

Then came the World Cup, a debut appearance they had been building towards for 12 long years. It started badly with a dismal display against Ecuador and, despite improved performances against Senegal and the Netherlands, petered out. “Our goal was to be competitive,” said Sánchez, who looks set to be heading in the opposite direction to Queiroz to take the Iran job. “We’ve been working for so many months to be able to give a good performance. But sometimes the match does not play out as you expect. We didn’t play at our top level. We were competitive but didn’t improve.”

It is debatable as to whether being competitive was the goal. Perhaps it was once but the improvements made had increased expectations. After the Asian Cup triumph and the other international tournaments, most thought Sánchez – who started working at Doha’s Aspire Academy in 2006, came up through the age ranks with many of the players and took the senior job in 2017 – was on the right track.

Players of Iran celebrate with head coach Carlos Queiroz after winning the FIFA World Cup 2022 group B soccer match between Wales and Iran
Carlos Queiroz, seen here celebrating with the Iranian players after their 2022 World Cup group stage win over Wales, is respected in Asian football. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

But there were some concerns that going into November that he was overly loyal to the Asian Cup winners and had introduced little new blood in the almost four years since. There were also more general worries that, despite efforts to give the team as much international exposure as possible through an unprecedented preparation programme, the occasion could be too much. The players froze against Ecuador, on paper the weakest opponents in the group, and will likely have to live for some time with being the worst hosts in history.

The World Cup focused minds and was the culmination of years of preparation and investment. Given the disappointment in November and the miserable Under-20 Asian Cup campaign, the question is whether Qatar will slip back into their previous position as a second-tier Asian country or keep striving to be a leading continental force.

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The arrival of Queiroz, one of the most experienced coaches in the game and well-respected in the region after his time with Iran, is a sign in some respects. He brings a pragmatism and tactical nous that were missing at the World Cup, when his talent at creating a siege mentality could also have been useful. Whether the former Real Madrid coach is the man to oversee a rebuild of personnel, confidence and style remains to be seen.

It helps that there is another major international tournament before long. The 2023 Asian Cup will take place in Qatar next January and should give some clues as to whether the team can build on progress made before the World Cup and learn from the failures during it.

The big target, however, is the 2026 World Cup and the forgettable 2022 debut may one day be seen to contain some positives if it helps provide a springboard for a first qualification. If Qatar get to that tournament they may enjoy their second World Cup appearance a lot more than the first but, even with the expansion in teams, there is plenty of work to be done.

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