The biggest thing to happen to Qatari football is expected to be the 2022 World Cup. However, the biggest thing happening to Qatari football may just occur six years earlier. Currently underway in Qatar is the AFC Under 23 Championship which is also doubling as part of the qualification process for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the hosts, in that respect, are doing rather well thank you very much.
Qatar qualified from Group A with a 100% record of three wins out of three and were very impressive in doing so. The host side came back from 1-0 down to beat China in the opening game and a new world star was born, Abdelkarim Hassan, who is the Under 23 skipper. The muscular defender headed the equaliser before netting his second of the game with a blistering 25 yard drive that had Carlos Alberto written all over it. Another of Qatar`s future stars, Ahmed Alaa tapped in a third after a flowing and swift counter attack caught China too far upfield as they pressed for an equaliser.
In game number two Qatar beat Iran 2-1 with Alaa and Hassan each scoring once. The hosts completed a third consecutive victory when they dispatched Syria 4-2. Again they had to come from behind after Syria opened the scoring after just four minutes but once again Abdelkarim Hassan came good with a headed equaliser, his fourth goal in three games. Alaa made it 2-1 with a crisp finish after a swift burst forward and Almoez Ali made it 3-1 just short of the half hour. Syria reduced the arrears eight minutes from time but Alaa`s second goal clinched the points and the group.
Few people gave any consideration, as far as football is concerned, to Qatar until they were awarded the 2022 World Cup. Then the scrutiny became quite a few degrees hotter than intense, and heat is only one of the controversies that enshrouds this former Middle East backwater that is now the richest, per capita, nation on earth thanks to its gas and oil reserves. But the current AFC Under 23 Championships may well change perception of Qatar, from a football perspective, if the host team of talented youngsters are judged, as they should be, on football not politics or media spin.
With a population smaller than Bristol and less footballers than the Solomon Islands there is a very restricted talent pool for Qatar to select from as they build towards the 2022 World Cup. With that as the background the football authorities, backed by a tangibly endless cash pot, established a cunning plan, as recently as 2004.
That was the year the Aspire Academy was formed to find and develop the best male Qatari athletes, including footballers. In 2007 Aspire sent out thousands of scouts to identify Africa`s brightest football prospects. Four years later Aspire beat Manchester United`s Youth Team 5-1 to win Ireland`s Milk Cup, one of the world`s most prestigious youth tournaments. However, when the Qatar National team beat Algeria, 1-0, in a 2015 friendly, six of the Qatari team were not born there. The process of awarding citizenship to players born outside the country caused concern for FIFA and is currently being phased out by Qatar authorities.
Never the less the influence of foreign players and coaches, tempted by astronomical salaries, if not the standard of domestic football, cannot be underestimated. It must also not be forgotten that in 2014 the Qatari Under 19 team won the AFC Under 19 Championship in Myanmar, formerly Burma, and qualified for the 2015 FIFA Under 20 World Cup in New Zealand, and all players in both those successes were students of the Aspire Academy.
Akram Afif scored the only goal of the Under 19 Final, after coming on as a substitute. At the time he was a player with Sevilla in Spain and in June 2015 he graduated from the Aspire Academy, the same year he joined Belgian side Eupen, where he plays with several other team mates from the Qatar Under 23 side.
Ahmed Alaaeldin, or Alaa, is the oldest player in the current Under 23 side and will be 23 at the end of January 2016. He is a forward blessed with lightning pace and a potent left foot. He is another of the team who is expected to be at his peak by the time the 2022 World Cup is staged. He is currently a member of the Al Rayyan Sports Club and the Qatar Olympic team though the worldwide audience he is enthralling in the Under 23 Championships should see many a top European club beating a path to his door once the current competition is over.
Ahmed Moein, aged just 19, is also a Eupen player. He is a midfielder regarded by many as the central pivot for the Under 23 team and, like Abdelkarim Hassan, a player around which the national team will be built with 2022 in mind. Allegedly he based his midfield passing game around hours of watching videos of Frank Lampard in action. Not a bad example for the Qatar youngster to follow,
Of the many hot prospects wearing the shirt of Qatar in the AFC Championships none is hotter than Abdelkarim Hassan, a 22 year old defender, and captain of the team, who plays for Al Sadd, the top club in Qatar. He was the youngest player to appear in AFC Champions League when he debuted in 2011, coming off the bench, aged 17, against Esteghlal. In 2012-13 he was voted Young Player of the Year in Qatar Stars League. A massive bonus in his ability catalogue is a penchant for goals, 14 of them in 75 club games since 2010.
Even before a ball was kicked in the current Under 23 competition Hassan was being touted as being the bedrock on which the basis of the full Qatar national would be built for 2022. But his performances as Qatar swept through Group A were nothing short of sensational. He finished the group with four goals and few would back against him finishing the tournament with the Golden Boot as he surged into the world spotlight and a bright future.
Standing 6 feet and one inch tall and weighing in at 79kg Abdel cuts an awesome figure on the field. His physique and athleticism are complemented by his technical skills and not only his goals but the variety of those goals, make him an outstanding prospect for many years to come.
Abdelkarim Hassan is unlikely to see the year out at his current club, Al Sadd. If he is not strutting his stuff in any one of the top European leagues by next year the clubs in those leagues may need to dispatch new binoculars to their scouting network. Surely no one is going to miss out on an athletic, fast and powerful defender who can actually play football and score goals, aged just 22, ARE THEY?
Those three are the pick of a very talented bunch but there is a word of caution to add to what is undoubtedly great potential. They are the twin dangers of complacency and motivation. Any player currently part of the national youth teams of Qatar, from Under 17 to Under 23, may well consider themselves as `shoe-ins` for the 2022 World Cup. However, some of those players may well have to move on to pastures new in the next six years to earn or even keep a place in the frame for the Qatar World Cup.
There is no doubt that the infrastructure in Qatar will be ready but will the team? Most of the current Under 23 squad have at least two or three years left at that level though many will graduate much sooner. The 2016 AFC Under 23 Championships is very much a dry run as far as 2022 is concerned but it may turn out to be far more important for the national team, from a football perspective rather than an infrastructure one.
There is always hope and expectation of a host nation, which sadly often goes unfulfilled. Even the most neutral of observers can see that whatever happens with the current Under 23 Qatar side in this year`s AFC Championships the looks on those young footballers faces, not to mention their body language, tells its own tale.
They are loving it and cannot wait to take on the world in 2022 and the world better beware.