Copa America 2019: Qatar learning ropes of top-flight football the hard way, determined to excel in next year's edition

Porto Alegre: Qatar may have fallen at the first hurdle in their South American adventure but the 2022 World Cup hosts showed enough in Brazil to suggest that the future is bright for the Maroons.

They arrived at the Copa America as an unknown side as far as the locals were concerned but despite losing two of their three matches, Qatar proved competitive enough to ensure they won't be a surprise package next year when they'll be making their second appearance in the South American showpiece tournament.

"There were times that we played well. We have to keep working hard," said Qatar's Spanish coach Felix Sanchez. "It's a young team looking at the next three years. We need to work hard to be strong when we get there." Qatar have never qualified for the World Cup and will take part for the first time as hosts in 2022.

 Copa America 2019: Qatar learning ropes of top-flight football the hard way, determined to excel in next years edition

Qatar's Akram Afif (left) fights for the ball with Argentina's Renzo Saravia. AP

Despite their modest history and tiny indigenous population, the gas-rich Gulf state has lofty ambitions and took a pair of important steps this year. In February, in the United Arab Emirates, they overcame a hostile crowd — provoked by a political spat in the Gulf region — to win the Asian Cup for the first time, having never before gone beyond the quarter-finals.

And their participation in the Copa America — the oldest continental national team competition in the world — has exposed Qatar to a higher level of football than they've ever experienced before.

Despite a positive start when they fought back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Paraguay, it proved a chastening experience following defeats by Colombia (1-0) and Argentina (2-0).

But Colombia's Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who has a lot of experience playing against Qatar having coached Iran for eight years, feels there is more to come.

"Qatar are here to show that there's football in Asia and if you don't respect their characteristics, their teamwork, look what happened with Paraguay," said Queiroz before his side played the Qataris. "They go to 2-2 and Qatar could have won it."

Although Colombia dominated, Qatar held on grimly for 86 minutes and created several chances on the counter-attack before eventually falling to a Duvan Zapata header. "It was a very difficult match and it was very important to be patient," said Colombia midfielder Gustavo Cuellar after the game.

"We managed to counter their threat which was the rapid transition from defence to attack." Qatar's has been a patient project and many years in the making. Sanchez, a product of Barcelona's renown La Masia training centre, joined Qatar's Aspire Academy — which aims to develop elite athletes — in 2006. Having coached Qatar's under-19, under-20 and under-23 teams he took over the top job from Uruguayan Jorge Fossati in July 2017.

And it's been an immediate success with Qatar beating Japan 3-1 to win the first major title, the AFC Asian Cup, in their history in February. But for bouts of naivety, Qatar could realistically have made the knock-out stages in Brazil.

They gave away fourth-minute goals against Paraguay and Argentina — the latter after a suicidal Bassam Hicham pass across his own area fell straight to Lautaro Martinez to fire home. Against Paraguay, two Qatar players failed to turn a wicked cross into an open goal.

"We paid for inexperience, we started two matches by conceding goals from unnecessary actions," bemoaned Sanchez. That, though, is something they should be able to iron out of their game, if not by next year's Copa America, then at least the World Cup.

"They're a very worthy team with a great future, with young players," enthused Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2019 16:42:36 IST