Qatar at AFC Asian Cup 2023: Hosts, defending champions but not favourites

Hosts Qatar go into the opening match of Asian Cup on the back of a turbulent year on and off the pitch.

Soccer Football - World Cup - AFC Qualifiers - Group A - Qatar v Afghanistan - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - November 16, 2023 Qatar players during their national anthem before the match REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari
Qatar will face Lebanon in their opening match of the tournament [File: Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters]

Lusail Stadium, which played host as Lionel Messi’s Argentina lifted their third FIFA World Cup crown, will light up in gold once again as Qatar begin their AFC Asian Cup title defence in the tournament’s opening match against Lebanon on Friday evening.

The Al Annabi (the Maroons) may enjoy the support of a partisan crowd as they step on the pitch as defending champions, but their journey from lifting the trophy in 2019 to hosting the current edition has been turbulent.

Qatar go into the tournament on the back of big wins in the 2026 World Cup qualifiers, but their outings against higher-ranked teams have resulted in heavy losses in recent months. Paired with the sacking of the vastly experienced former Portugal and Real Madrid manager Carlos Queiroz a month before the Asian Cup and only 10 months into the job, they have left question marks over Qatar’s preparations.

Queiroz took over from Felix Sanchez – a popular Spanish coach who worked his way up in Qatar’s football setup and led Qatar to the Asian Cup triumph in the United Arab Emirates four years ago. However, Sanchez’s contract was not renewed at the end of 2022, as he saw Qatar lose all three of their group stage matches as hosts of the 2022 World Cup.

Another Spanish coach, Marquez Lopez, who was previously in charge of Qatar Stars League club Al Wakrah, was quickly appointed Quieroz’s successor.

It is far from the preparations and build-up the team that shocked Japan in the final four years ago would have liked.

Qatar to use pressure ‘in a positive way’

Nonetheless, Qatar are expected to make a strong defence of a trophy they fought so hard to lift for the first time and defender Tarek Salman says the pressure is not the same as it was going into the World Cup.

“Normally you have pressure,” he said, insisting that being the current Asian champions would affect the team “in a positive way, not in a negative way”.

The 26-year-old, who plays for Qatari club Al Sadd, did admit that the change of management meant the players have been required to adapt to a Spanish style. Publicly the players have welcomed the appointment and Salman says it is a late change of direction that he believes the team can navigate.

“I think it’s going to fit us and we hope to achieve good things with the coach,” he added.

Former national team player Raed Yaqoub, who represented his country between 1993 and 2001, says that despite the upheaval, Qatar should easily get out of a group that also contains China and Tajikistan, and that the semifinals should be possible.

The 49-year-old player-turned-pundit, who made 23 appearances for the national team, has sympathy for the task the lies before Lopez after the events of December.

“I think that holding him responsible only a month before the tournament is a mistake,” he said, adding that he sees Japan, as the strongest team, while also fancying Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia.

Japan ‘looking for revenge’

Another former Qatar international, Mohamed Mubarak al-Mohannadi said the switch so close to the Asian Cup would make it difficult “for any coach to make the required transformation within a month’s period”.

Al-Mohannadi, who played 17 times in midfield for his nation in the 1980s, warned that Qatar will have a target on their backs as holders, particularly in the eyes of Japan, who he said would be “looking for revenge”.

“Japan is a developed team and its level has risen greatly since then,” he said, “unlike the Qatari team, whose level has declined significantly.”

Qatar won plaudits for its organisation of the World Cup in 2022 but the team lost to Netherlands, Senegal and Ecuador to exit at the group stage. It was the worst performance by any World Cup host.

Lopez knows Qatari football

The Asian Cup, transferred to Qatar from China due to the latter’s “zero-COVID” policy, was hoped to be a fresh start.

Quieroz won five, lost five and drew two matches in his aborted four-year contract while Lopez’s first game in charge, at the end of December, was a 3-0 win over Cambodia, a team which failed to qualify for the regional championship.

Lopez, who played for Espanyol in his native Spain, said it was “important” that he knew Qatari football, having managed Al-Wakrah for six years.

“I know the players, I know my mentality and I know … my idea for playing,” he said, explaining he was not “arriving new”.

The 62-year-old said following his appointment that “in football, there is pressure all the time,” and downplayed the idea that his side was under pressure to make up for their World Cup disappointment.

“More important for the players is enjoying the match,” he said.

Ultimately when the words stop and the whistle blows at the 88,000-capacity Lusail Stadium, the expectation will be that the time has come for the performance of the defending champions to match the occasion.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies