DOHA: First-timers Qatar go into the Copa America with the young team riding high following their triumph in the Asian Cup but humbled by “higher calibre” competition than they encountered in the Emirates.
Head coach Felix Sanchez also said that the tournament would be a “significant step in our journey towards the World Cup” which Qatar will host in 2022.
“We’ll play against experienced teams that are certainly of a higher calibre than what we saw at the Asian tournament,” he said in an interview with FIFA ahead of the Brazil tournament.
“Our group includes Argentina, whose abilities are well known, and Colombia, who are exceptionally good performers, whether at World Cups or the Copa America. Paraguay also boast a pedigreed history.”
The South American continental championship gets underway on June 14 with the hosts Brazil looking for their first title since 2007.
“So, I believe these matches will serve as an important staging post for me and the players. They’ll tell us where we currently stand and what we need to do in the next phase,” added Sanchez.
Qatar got off to a cautious start in a friendly against Brazil who won 2-0, although the visitors’ credible performance was overshadowed by Neymar’s travails.
The forward, who is facing rape accusations he strongly denies, sprained his ankle and was forced to limp off the pitch on crutches, ruling him out of the tournament.
“It was a great game for us. (But) we should learn from our mistakes,” said a Qatar team official. “In the second half we played better.”
The side, which with Japan was invited to make up the required 12 teams, has struck a cautious tone ahead of their highest profile outing since the Asian Cup.
Qatar’s inclusion in the Copa America initially raised eyebrows but both they and Japan reached the Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi.
Qatar triumphed in that tournament going from zero points at the last Asian Cup to their first continental title in record-breaking style, beating Japan 3-1.
Forward Almoez Ali’s bicycle kick helped bring home the trophy and broke Ali Daei’s 23-year-old mark for goals at a single Asian Cup.
Ali said the Copa was all about learning for Qatar, continuing the methodical approach which has already paid dividends.
‘It won’t be easy’
“We’re not expecting to win, but just to learn because after the World Cup, the Copa America is the biggest competition in the world,” Ali said following the Asian Cup win.
“The weakest teams are in Asia, Asia is the weakest continent for football so in the Copa America we will learn more.”
The team source acknowledged to AFP that “it won’t be easy”.
Qatar also has one eye clearly fixed on the 2022 World Cup.
“You have to always focus on your overriding goal. The state of Qatar is heading towards a historic event: hosting the 2022 World Cup,” said Sanchez who was given a mandate last month to lead Qatar into the global soccer spectacle when his contract was extended to 2022.
“We need to make sure the squad are in top form and up to the nation’s expectations. This means that we’ll not be participating just for its own sake, but that we’re determined to leave our mark on World Cup history, especially since this will be Qatar’s first World Cup.
“Our participation in the 2019 Copa America can be seen as a significant step in our journey towards the World Cup, a journey that we started some time ago.”
Sanchez said that above all the tournament would be a proving ground for his side’s young stars.
After spending many millions of petro-dollars on their world-class Aspire Academy, and scouring the world for top coaches, Qatar are beginning to recoup their investment.
“Since our squad has many young players, we look forward to gaining as much experience as possible in this high-profile tournament,” said Sanchez.
“Specifically, that means experiencing the Latin American style of play and taking part in a major tournament in front of many fans. It will also allow us to address important details on and off the pitch.
“I want the team to perform in a proper and honourable way and demonstrate that they’ve progressed. That’s not just measured in accumulating points and progressing to the next round, but if that happens, it would of course be great.”
Qatar’s Copa America campaign will begin on June 16 against Paraguay.