Qatar the stars after another major step towards 2022 World Cup





The Asian Cup produced a shock winner and some predictable political points during 26 days of competition which concluded in the United Arab Emirates on Friday.
Abu Dhab -By Derek Wilson, - Qatar triumphed against Japan in the Asian Cup final on Friday but their improved status ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2022 had long been confirmed.
Felix Sanchez's youthful side went on a dazzling run throughout the competition in the United Arab Emirates which began way back on January 5.



 

They were deserving winners having conceded just once in seven victories throughout their stay.
And going forward they had the magnificent striker Almoez Ali, top scorer with a tournament record nine goals, and creative spark Akram Afif who was a seemingly never-ending source of assists.
The hosting UAE meanwhile stumbled throughout the tournament to a respectable semi-final showing but were humiliated there by Gulf rivals Qatar in a match marred by crowd misbehaviour.
While bickering in the stands is not unusual anywhere in the world, there was a sense of pickiness throughout the event which suggests sport will not bridge the diplomatic differences in the region any time soon.
Qatar were forced to take a roundabout route to the UAE rather than a short flight from Doha due to an ongoing blockade, started in 2017, that its neighbours have imposed due to accusations - which are denied - of backing terrorism.
"Everyone knows there are tensions between countries in this region, and it's something that depends on the respective leaders," Gianni Infantino, president of global governing body FIFA, said.
"It might be easier for them to sit down and talk about a football project than other things."
There is little evidence of that, which would mean Qatar's World Cup is unlikely to be expanded from 32 to 48 teams as such an increase would require assistance from neighbours.
And the small Gulf state is arguably less likely to wish to share the glory of hosting duties in just under four years now it has a team on the pitch which looks capable of competing.
"We’re working with this group of players for a year and a half, we trust the team, believe in them," said Sanchez, who has been part of the Qatar youth coaching set-up for years.
"We came here with the hope that we can challenge and compete with everyone in Asia. For us it’s not a surprise.
"We know we are performing at a very high level, that is what is requested at a tournament like that."
Just seven months after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, others did not hit the same level of performance.
Reigning champions Australia were eliminated in the quarter-finals by the UAE and coach Graham Arnold was left to look to the future.
"We'll learn a lot from this tournament," he said.
Beating the Socceroos was the high point for the UAE who nonetheless failed to match their previous trip to the final as hosts in 1996.
"For us, to reach the semi-final of the Asian Cup does not mean a lot. I am not satisfied; the players are not satisfied," said coach Alberto Zaccheroni, whose future seems in severe doubt with his contract expiring.
One of several bosses to exit appears to have been Iran's Carlos Queiroz whose team - top-ranked in the continent - failed to end a 43-year title drought with defeat to Japan in the semi-finals. Queiroz's departure has not yet been officially confirmed but seems inevitable.
Marcello Lippi and Sven Goran Eriksson left China and the Philippines respectively after a tournament where the biggest stars were on the bench rather than the pitch.
Even South Korean superstar Son Heung Min turned up late - with permission - by missing the first two games in agreement with his club Tottenham Hotspur.
In a way, that exemplified a tournament which was broadly well run by the hosts but lacked spontaneity or truly memorable moments.
Along with France and Portugal lifting the recent World Cup and European Championships, those tournaments supplied images of Peruvians dancing through Sochi or Irish fans turning cities green.
There was none of that in the UAE with attendances poor - though not disgraceful by previous standards - and even Abu Dhabi taxi drivers, a regular barometer for the feeling in a city, were completely unaware of who was playing.
That was perhaps aided by the Asian Cup's own expansion from 16 to 24 teams as the likes of Yemen and North Korea struggled to be competitive.
"It’s good for the experience, the development – everyone can see what we have to improve," Oman coach Pim Verbeek said in defence of the increase.
"The only thing for me is the games are not on television, that’s my private [view]. That’s a pity [not] to get into the tournament."
That was because Qatari broadcaster BeIN had exclusive rights in the region and, though a few bars did show the matches, most people did not have access to the games.
At the Asian Cup, politics may take second place to football - but never by much.

 


Saturday, February 2nd 2019
By Derek Wilson,
           


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