|Fabio Cesar put Qatar 2-1 up before Japan fought back to deny the hosts a first Asian Cup semi-final [Reuters]
World Cup – check. Stadium plans – got those. Now Qatar has shown it has a football team to go with the grand schemes off the pitch.
It is a work in progress. Qatar were knocked out of their home Asian Cup on Friday in a pulsating quarter-final against Japan, after twice taking the lead against a team ranked 76 places above them in the world.
The hearts of 20,000 Qataris who had relentlessly roared on the team at Al Gharafa stadium were broken a minute before full time when Masahiko Inoha punished an overwhelmed defence to send 10-man Japan into the semifinals with a 3-2 win.
What had come before should give hope for the future of a Qatari team that will play against the planet's best at the World Cup in 11 years' time.
"We have shown the whole world that the Qatar team can play football," French coach Bruno Metsu said afterwards.
"You can see from the reaction of the Japan players how hard it was for them. You do not get a team that has played in two World Cups celebrating like that if they have not played against a good side."
Rough and ready
With the showpiece Khalifa International Stadium reserved for Uzbekistan v Jordan later in the day, the hosts made do with the rough-and-ready Al Gharafa across town.
In a tournament that has witnessed poor crowds and a lack of atmosphere, the more confined arena was a boon.
The men and women of Doha came, they saw a football match, and they stayed for 90 minutes – banging drums, waving portraits of the Emir and the Heir Apparent, and responding to the shouts of "Wehda!" (unity!) and "Shaja'a Al Anabi!" (support the Maroons) booming from the throat of a man with a loudhailer.
Qatar showed their intent when right-back Mesaad Ali came close with two efforts in as many minutes.
His shot from the right was parried away by Eiji Kawashima for a corner, before the defender unleashed a rising drive from almost 40 yards that the Japan goalkeeper again did well to keep out.
|Japan captain Makoto Hasebe celebrates reaching the semi-finals as Qatar rue defeat [Reuters]
Then, on 13 minutes, came a goal that brought a first Asian Cup semi-final for Qatar a step closer – a goal made in Uruguay, before being imported by Qatari football's tiger economy.
Sebastian Soria now holds a different passport to that of his countryman Diego Forlan, but he showed all the poise and conviction of the World Cup star to beat the offside trap from halfway, twist Maya Oshida inside out, and sidefoot underneath Kawashima into the net.
Dreams of an upset lasted 16 minutes before CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda lifted the ball into the path of Shinji Okazaki, who lobbed Qasem Burhan for Borussia Dortmund striker Shinji Kagawa to head into the empty net.
Half time coincided with the call to prayer, and much of the crowd was still putting their shoes back on and retaking their seats when Soria almost broke again. But this time a lack of pace was telling and Japan were able to clear.
With Soria now being cancelled out in a bad-tempered battle with Yasuyuki Konno, Qatar injected creativity with the introduction of Brazil-born Fabio Cesar Montezine, the former Napoli player whose free kick had capped a 3-0 defeat of Kuwait to qualify for the quarters.
The impact was instant. Oshida received a harsh second yellow for a tackle on Yusef Ahmed, resulting in a 60th-minute free kick on the right wing that was tailor-made for a cross to the far post.
Instead, the midfielder curled a left-foot shot that crept inside the near upright, taking Kawashima with it into the net.
"We have shown the whole world that the Qatar team can play football. You can see from the reaction of the Japan players how hard it was for them"
Bruno Metsu, Qatar coach
The roar was worthy of a World Cup final. Fabio sprinted to the corner of the ground to be jumped upon by teammates as ecstatic fans reached over the hoardings to pound the players on the back.
If destiny seemed to be on Qatar's side, the reality of a gulf in class between the teams proved more telling.
Honda combined again with Okazaki and Kagawa, who took advantage of some mixed-up defending to sprint clear and finish past Qasem.
Japan continued to launch attacks despite their one-man disadvantage. Qatar could still have won it, with captain Mohammed Bilal, Soria and Fabio all going close, but defensive legs were looking tired with no let-up in the tempo.
As extra-time approached, desperate defending in the Qatar box would almost certainly have resulted in a penalty for a late tackle had defender Inoha not taken the decision out of the referee's hands.
He prodded home a loose ball, sending the three-times champions into the semi-finals to the delight of their balloon-waving supporters.
A minority of home fans immediately headed for the exits with four minutes of injury time still to play.
Those who stayed to bring down the curtain on Qatar's first campaign since winning the right to host the World Cup have cause for hope on the long road to 2022.
Source: Al Jazeera