First Asia, then the world

Qatar will come under scrutiny during its hosting of football's Asian Cup this month but success and failure should not

    The stars seem to be aligned for Qatar at the moment. Just over a month ago, the Gulf state was awarded the hosting of the football World Cup in 2022.

    On Friday, Qatar has an immediate opportunity to showcase itself as both a team and a host when the national side kicks off against Uzbekistan in the opening match of the Asian Cup in Doha.

    The biggest football competition in Asia will inevitably be seen as a precursor to the biggest tournament on the planet.

    Had the World Cup been heading to Australia, Japan, South Korea or the United States in 11 years' time, the Asian Cup - the continent's equivalent of the European Championships - would have had scant more attention paid to it than the 14 Asian Cups that have gone before.

    Remember them? Well, Iraq won the last one. If the world missed that story in Jakarta four years ago, sports fans and journalists are likely to have a keen eye on events this month.

    The Asian Cup will be seen as a test for Qatar.

    It is a test to see if Qatar can host the Asian Cup in 2011. It is a test of its potential to host the World Cup, successfully, in 2022.

    No one should arrive in Doha this week expecting a World Cup city. It is not - yet. But the scepticism of anyone who hasn't lived here is understandable. The World Cup is important, and people want assurance that they will get a good one.

    Qatar as a cityscape and a sporting hub has transformed since I arrived here for the Asian Games five years ago. I had hardly heard of the place - a stage many people were at before the World Cup announcement.

    My experience since has convinced me that the World Cup can be a success here, but only the progress of the next 11 years can prove that.

    Being slighty more brutal, I do not believe that the standard of Qatar's national team that competes in 2022 will have changed too much from the one that plays Uzbekistan on Friday.

    Maybe there will be an astonishingly good crop from Doha's world class ASPIRE Academy that will gel together and perform wonders in 2022. A World Cup on the doorstep will no doubt inspire the new generation.

    But it takes longer than that to build a world-beating team.

    It takes wave upon wave of five-year-old footballers making the grade as six-year-old footballers. Eleven-year-old footballers rejecting the temptations of adolescence and still being at the top of their age group at 16, then making the national team and then having an impact.

    Qatar, currently sandwiched between Wales and Suriname at 114th in the FIFA rankings, will improve thanks to ASPIRE and a steadily growing sporting culture that includes the World Cup.

    But getting close to lifting the trophy in 2022? Forget it.

    As for winning the Asian Cup, Australia will fancy their chances of a first trophy, having joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 from Oceania.

    They lost last time round in the quarter-finals, to Japan, who are hunting a fourth trophy, as are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    Some fantastic matches highlight the road to the final on January 29, not least Iraq against Iran on Tuesday next week, while North Korea could play South Korea in the quarter-finals on January 22.

    As usual, all of Asia will be watching. This time, the world will be too.


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