The World Cup remains the tournament on everyone’s minds only weeks after Argentina’s glorious triumph over France in Doha.
But as the details continue to be discussed, one thing remains beyond debate: The host nation’s performance on the pitch was a massive anticlimax to 12 years of anticipation.
Now, the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup is providing Qatar with a chance to quickly get back on the horse after an embarrassing fall.
And the message from Al-Ennabi, or the Maroons, as the team is known, would seem to be that Qatar are here to remind the world that they are still champions of Asia.
But was their 2-0 Group B win over Kuwait the beginning of a new revolution for the Qatari national team ahead of upcoming challenges on the international front?
To make up for the World Cup failure, Basra 2023 could just well be the first step on the road to recovery for the Qataris who are set to host the 2023 AFC Asian Cup — initially scheduled to take place in China — at the end of the year, or potentially in early 2024.
Whatever the outcome of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup, the future of the Qatari national team will be overseen by a new regime after the Felix Sanchez era came to an expected end following the World Cup debacle.
Looking back over the years, Sanchez had been with what was seen as the country’s golden generation since 2013 — first as coach of the U-19 team, then U-23s, and from 2017, the senior side as well.
The crowning glory came with the glorious 2019 AFC Asian Cup triumph in the UAE, but sadly that success could not be maintained all the way to the 2022 World Cup, where it seemed that Qatar had somewhat forgotten all the good habits and experience they picked up over the previous decade.
Qatar’s three losses to Ecuador, Senegal and the Netherlands, to leave the competition early without a point and only a single goal, was unsatisfactory, to say the least, and it betrayed a distinguished preparation program that most other competing teams could only dream of having.
The defeats meant Qatar became the first host country to lose its three matches at the tournament and joined South Africa as the only other host nation to fail to qualify from the group stage.
Quick action was needed, and Sanchez was let go as the Qatar Football Association set about focusing on the upcoming defense of the Asian Cup title on home soil.
In reality, the task of rebuilding toward that target has been given an unexpectedly quick boost by the Arabian Gulf Cup being held so soon after Qatar 2022.
It has allowed the new Portuguese coach Bruno Pinheiro to select mostly the Olympic — U-23 — squad, with many players participating at senior level for the first time alongside experienced players such as goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham and midfielder Assim Madibo. The average age of the squad in Basra is 23.6 years.
The policy paid off in the opening match, with Qatar deservedly beating Kuwait with the type of cohesive performance, especially in midfield, that was in stark contrast to what was on display at the World Cup.
Tuesday will provide perhaps a sterner test as Qatar’s youngsters take on defending champions Bahrain, who themselves kicked off with a 2-1 win over the UAE.
Qatar previously won the Arabian Gulf Cup title in 1992 and 2004 at home, and in 2014 in Saudi Arabia; lost the final four times; and reached the semifinals in the last edition in 2019 in Doha.
A victory, or even just a strong honorable showing, would be, firstly, a quick way for the team to reconcile with supporters still angry over the showing at the World Cup; and secondly, and more importantly, a morale-raising exercise as the team and coach look forward to imminent challenges.
Whether Qatar can claim a first title in nine years, and fourth overall, in Basra remains to be seen.
Far more important for the future of the national team, and its reputation, is how they will fare at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup — and then, qualification for the 2026 World Cup.
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