Copa America 2019: Qatar set for tough test in South America after establishing themselves as continental heavyweights in Asia

Rio de Janeiro: At the national stadium in Brasilia, a World Cup white elephant, the majority of supporters were focused on the green and yellow and the novel episode of Neymar's truncated career that was unfolding: he collided with the bullish Assim Madibo and picked up an ankle injury that left him out of the Copa America. At least, instead of attempting to resurrect his career on home soil, the PSG star could concentrate on the serious rape allegations he faces.

Brazil had little attention for Qatar and in earnest there was no reason to either: within 24 minutes the Copa America hosts had a two-goal advantage courtesy of Everton's Richarlison and Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus. In the Brazilian capital the Asian champions got a reality check, confronted with a high standard of play that will push them out of their comfort zone at the Copa America as well, the highest-level competition Qatar have entered so far.

 Copa America 2019: Qatar set for tough test in South America after establishing themselves as continental heavyweights in Asia

Qatar's players take part in a training session at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Mauro Pimentel/AFP

Qatar were restricted to defending and never kindled the Asian Cup spirit of a dynamic 4-3-3 formation that alternated spells of Spanish-like ball possession with lightening-quick counterattacks. The class divide between Brazil and Qatar was too big and underscored what this tournament will be about for the Asian champions: development, but above all a benchmark of their international standing — how far they have come and still need to go. Qatar's coach also cottoned on that idea. "The competition will serve to see at what level we are at," said Feliz Sanchez Bas. "At the Asian Cup. we had a very good dynamic that gave us the possibility to win the title. It is a very strong group that has has a very strong objective, the 2022 World Cup."

Last November, Qatar registered noteworthy results against Ecuador, Switzerland and Iceland, but it was at the Asian Cup that Al Annabi outwitted the continent's finest with a fine display of lethal attacking, positional play and adept defending. They defeated regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the hosts United Arab Emirates en route to the final where Qatar cleverly outplayed Japan 3-1 to win their first continental title.

From the surreal and strange settings of the North Korea game in Al Ain to the showpiece match against Asia's historically strongest team, Qatar won all of its seven games in the UAE, scoring nineteen goals and conceding just one, from Takumi Minamino. Almoez Ali won the golden boot with nine goals, breaking the 1996 record of legendary Iranian striker Ali Daei, and Akrim Afif, Qatar's other golden boy, topped the assist charts with ten.

But stats alone would belie how impressive Qatar were at the Asian Cup, victory marking the nation's ascent to the top and new-found place among the continent's elite. They were, to an extent, the Spain of Asia, playing fine possession football built on a 4-3-3, but with enough agility and speed in the final third of the field to accelerate when needed. Apart from Ali and Afif, captain Hassan Al-Haydos, with all his experience, proved to be invaluable. Madibo anchored the midfield and Abdelkarim Hassan was a stalwart at left-back.

Spanish coach Felix Sanchez Bas was the X factor in Qatar's win. He has been in the Emirate for over a decade and demonstrated his tactical pedigree in various matches. The Qatar Football Association, the QFA, has confirmed Sanchez as the man to lead the Maroons on home soil during the World Cup, discarding suggestions that he could be replaced by a big name supposedly more befitting of brand Qatar.

Qatar's win still was a surprise, but hardly a Maroon fairytale: Qatar poured in millions to build a team from scratch, using the state-of-the-art Aspire Academy in Doha, feeder clubs in Europe, foreign expertise and possibly the largest-ever scouting exercise to create a team befitting a World Cup host.

Still, for all the hullabaloo about Qatar's win, the benefits for its own team players, apart from eternal glory and quick riches at home, have been limited. All of Sanchez's squad still ply their trade at home and the Qatari youth teams failed to impress at the U-20 World Cup in Poland and the famous Toulon tournament, finishing both events without a win. That lack of experience will be a concern against Paraguay at the Maracana on Sunday in Group C. Sixteen players of the South American country's squad play abroad, four of them in Europe.

There is little doubt that the marauding Maroons have bridged the gap with the Asian top, but the Copa America will mark the first time Qatar plays against world class opposition in a competitive setting. They have met Argentina in a friendly, but never played Paraguay or either Colombia. The Copa America will be part of Qatar's learning curve and the biggest indication yet how the 2022 World Cup hosts might fare at their tournament.

Updated Date: Jun 16, 2019 15:33:15 IST