Bidding for the 2022 World Cup began a long time ago, in early 2009 – and Qatar made it count, beating Australia, Japan, South Korea, and in the final round, the heavily favored United States. The first Arabic country and also the smallest ever nation to host the showpiece event, a never-heard-of change in the football calendar was made considering the local climate. After all, why not have a World Cup final just before Christmas?
Qualifying as hosts, Qatar had plenty of time to prepare and did so with the help of experts all over the globe. They have little international pedigree to show, but the signs are promising: after their first Asian championship title in 2019, they were certainly no pushover in that year’s Copa America and won bronze in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. This year, they’ve already beaten Ghana and held Chile to a draw.
How do they play?
If Qatar wants to go far, it will have to rely on a drilled defense supported by vast experience, with up to five players in the starting line-up collecting over a hundred caps. Don’t expect them to be starstruck and give up easily when the world’s best come to town. A low block of five defenders and three midfielders can halt any attack.
However, they also need to score goals. Quick counter-attacks will be their bread and butter this winter, but against Asian competition, Qatar has had plenty of attacking exercises too, beating Oman, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh by an aggregate score of 18:1.
Why they can win?
It is most definitely a long shot, but the hosts have exceeded expectations before and the timing definitely suits them. While most of the world’s top players are with their clubs pretty much up until flying straight to the World Cup, are likely fatigued, and have little time for preparation, the Qataris have been drilling almost maniacally, spending up to six months in camps with the national team. 20 years ago, South Korea had a similar strategy and it helped them to a historic top-four finish.
Why they can lose?
Not everyone can surpass expectations and the Qataris come into the tournament as underdogs. They have a tricky group with Ecuador, Senegal, and the Netherlands waiting, all expecting to go through to the knockout stage. Are the hosts coherent enough to spring a surprise or will their lack of star power be a problem?
The leading stars
26-year-old striker Almoez Ali tested the waters in Europe but had little success in Belgium, Austria, and Spain (the third tier). Despite posting mediocre numbers for local club Al-Duhail – 11 goals in 25 matches last season – he is a striker for the big occasion, scoring 39 goals in 82 games for Qatar and earning the Golden Boot at both the 2019 Asian Cup and the 2021 Gold Cup. Veteran goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb should be quite busy as well.
The fresh faces
Everyone will of course debut on football’s biggest stage, and with only a select few having any European pedigree, a lot of new faces may seize the chance. Expect Al Sadd’s 25-year-old winger Akram Afif to get a second look from European clubs, having been on the Villarreal payroll for some years and actually experiencing La Liga at Sporting Gijon. He had ten assists and a goal in the victorious Asian Cup campaign, in just seven games.