One only needs to look back at Russia four years ago to see how hosting the FIFA World Cup can be a massive advantage. Back in 2018, they defeated Mohamed Salah’s Egypt in the group stages to progress to the second round. There, they would defeat one of the tournament favourites in Spain, before giving eventual finalists Croatia all they could handle in one of the truly great knockout matches in World Cup history.
They would end up losing out on penalties, but they had turned heads the world over. Before them, there was South Korea back in 2002, who – albeit with the assistance of some more than controversial officiating – rode their luck to the semifinals. This winter, the honour of host falls upon Qatar. And can a raucous home fan base lead them out of the group stages, and who knows where from there?
If the tournament had taken place back in 2010 when the Maroon was awarded the rights to host the competition, there was a chance that they would have embarrassed themselves in front of the world’s eyes. They were ranked a lowly 113th in the world rankings, below the likes of Cuba, Uzbekistan and Syria.
Striker Fahad Khalfan was going viral for producing one of the worst misses the world had ever seen against Uzbekistan. But in the 12 years since, the Qataris have come on leaps and bounds, even managing to win silverware.
Online bookmakers such as BetVictor, who are offering fans a chance to crack the code in the build-up to the tournament, still make the hosts one of the rank outsiders, but don’t be surprised if they turn a few heads this winter.
An acclaimed coach inspires a nation
Their manager, Félix Sánchez, is a former coach at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy. He traded in the bright lights of the Camp Nou in an attempt to lead Qatar toward a brighter future. And the Catalonia native has done exactly that.
He led the Arab Gulf State to their first ever major trophy in 2019, defeating World Cup regulars Australia and Japan en route to AFC Asian Cup glory. They followed up that success with a run to the semifinals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, heartbreakingly losing out to Gyasi Zardes’ late winner.
Those successes, however, will stand the Qataris in good stead. And they will need to be. They’ve been draw in Group A alongside the Netherlands, Ecuador and the reigning champions of Africa – Senegal. The draw on paper looks incredibly difficult, but if you dig a little deeper, you will notice that Félix Sánchez’s side have an outside chance of reaching the knockout stage.
Their South American opponents haven’t been in the finest of fettle. They won just one of their last five games in qualifying, almost missing out on the tournament. The Netherlands do have an impressive team, but they were stunned by a Patrick Schick-inspired Czech Republic at last summer’s European Championships. Admittedly Senegal look like the team to beat.
Sadio Mané scored the winning penalty in Cameroon’s recent African Cup of Nations final, getting one over on his former Liverpool teammate Mohamed Salah in the final.
But success is to be expected. Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s Emir of the country will expect nothing less, especially after investing a mammoth $220bn into hosting the tournament. You wouldn’t like to answer to him if they are to exit at the group stages without so much as even a win.