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'We've come to compete - not take photos with Messi' - The story of Qatar's quest for World Cup credibility

11:00 GMT+3 20/11/2022
Sanchez Xavi Qatar 2022 World Cup GFX
The World Cup has been plagued by controversy, but the host nation's coach and players just want to prove that they can compete at this level

Ahead of the 2019 Copa America, Felix Sanchez took issue with the implication that his Qatar side were just happy to have been invited to the party. "It's true that they don't know us very well in South America," the Catalan acknowledged, "but we have super-professional players and we've come to compete – not to take photos with (Lionel) Messi."

Sanchez's frustration was understandable. Qatar had arrived in Brazil as the newly crowned Asian Cup champions, and they went on to acquit themselves well in the Copa, coming from 2-0 down to draw with Paraguay in their tournament-opener before losing narrowly to Colombia (1-0) and Messi's Argentina (2-0).

However, ahead of arguably the most controversial World Cup since Argentina '78, there remains a perception that Qatar's football team are simply along for the ride, beneficiaries of their monarchy's desire to establish themselves as major players in international sport.

As FIFA belatedly gets its wish to see the focus at Qatar 2022 switch from politics to football on Sunday - at least for a few hours - Sanchez's side will finally get their chance in the tournament opener against Ecuador to show whether they can actually compete at the highest level.

He wasn't so sure when he first faced the South American side as Qatar coach, five years ago.

Sanchez had been working in Qatar since leaving his native Barcelona in 2006, after a decade at La Masia. He knew all about the gulf nation's potential but also its limitations. After all, there were just 220 registered players to choose from when he succeeded Jorge Fossati at the helm in July 2017.

So, while enthused by the prospect of overseeing a fresh start, he was given a quick reality check during a game against Andorra. Qatar had actually won, 1-0, but Sanchez was far from satisfied with the result. He realised for the first time just how much work needed to be done.

Even a 4-3 friendly win over Ecuador in October 2018 didn't dispel his doubts. Qatar had played well but he kept wondering, "Would we be able to compete at that level in official matches?"

The Asian Cup changed everything. Qatar won all seven games they played in United Arab Emirates, beating the likes of Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan on their way to claiming their first major international title. What's more, they conceded just one goal in the process.

For Sanchez, this was a collective success, and a major victory for the Aspire Academy, the centre of Qatar's development programme. Indeed, five of the players involved in the final win over Japan had come from the country's Under-19s.

Sanchez told The Coaches' Voice: "This triumph belongs to all those who have taken part, or who are taking part, in the development of football in Qatar."

One of those was Xavi, the Barcelona icon who, at the time, was in charge of Al-Sadd, the biggest contributor of players to the national team. Indeed, Sanchez once quipped, "I think he knows the team better than we do!"

And familiarity is definitely one of Qatar's biggest strengths going into the World Cup. Ten of the 26-man squad may have been born outside Qatar, but all of them are home-based. In addition, this group has been together a long time, in every sense.

They have more caps combined than any other side at the World Cup, and only five members of the squad have made fewer than 20 international appearances.

They've also essentially been in training for the past two months, after the Qatar Stars League suspended play in the middle of September to allow Sanchez and his players to focus solely on the World Cup.

As preparation goes, then, Qatar's has been pretty much perfect, with the team winning four consecutive friendlies in Spain. Again, though, it comes down to levels, and the quality of opposition.

Sanchez himself admits that the World Cup will be unlike any other tournament Qatar have previously played. When he attended the draw, he admitted that they were going to be up against it no matter what: "Any group, any team will be very, very tough for us."

Things could have gone worse, of course. Qatar, who are 50th in the world rankings, were lucky to have been seeded as hosts. But they have still been bracketed with a resurgent Netherlands, Africa Cup of Nations champions Senegal, and an exciting young Ecuador side.

There is a legitimate fear that Qatar will become just the second host after South Africa to fail to get out of the group stage, and the first to do so without winning a single game.

There is talent in the team, particularly in attack, with captain Hassan Al-Haydos, record goalscorer Almoez Ali and Akram Afif all capable of causing problems.

However, Sanchez will likely set his side out in a 5-3-2 formation and his strategy will concentrate on containment.

"It would be suicide to try to take the initiative if we want to be competitive," he confessed to MARCA. "We will try to be compact defensively, allow the minimum amount of opportunities and be strong in transitions."

Sanchez accepts that everything is likely to hinge on Sunday's clash with Ecuador: "The first game of any tournament is always the most important." But particularly this one, given it's Qatar's easiest encounter on paper.

Beat Ecuador and they would be in a position to sneak into the last 16. Lose, and elimination would be all but inevitable.

"We know that we are not favourites but... in 2019, it was very difficult to think that Qatar could win the Asian Cup and we won it," he pointed out. "Obviously, I'm not talking about Qatar winning the World Cup, but playing at a high level against Ecuador, Senegal and Netherlands is our challenge."

Essentially, while the tournament organisers may have other objectives, Qatar's coach and his players once again have only one goal: to compete – not to take photos with any superstars they come across.