As 2014 approaches its final whistle, the world prepares to bid another year farewell, but in Qatar it will be no ordinary celebration. This football-mad country, which always has an eye on the future, is unlikely to forget the achievements of 2014, which will surely remain engraved in the annals of the country’s sporting history.
Never has Qatari football performed so well and so consistently. Its national sides notched victory after victory over the last 12 months, coming away with an array of titles and awards for teams and individual players alike. FIFA.com takes you on a whistle-stop review of the Gulf nation’s most successful year in recent memory.
Winning West Asia
This year saw the eighth edition of the West Asia Football Federation Championship, hosted in Doha, and though Qatar’s last and only previous appearance at this tournament was in 2008, they were determined to make their presence felt. At the helm was young Algerian coach Djemel Belmadi, who was given the opportunity by the Qatar Football Association (QFA) after leading Lekhwiya to the summit of the Qatar Stars League two years in succession.
Belmadi’s strategy was based on blooding new players, in a bid to give them experience, confidence and build a platform for future success. Despite being labelled as the country’s “B team”, his charges began with a bang and outstripped expectations. Win followed win, the young side finishing up with four victories from four games, netting ten goals and conceding just one in the process, and were crowned champions in the final against Jordan on 7 January.
By claiming this major title for the first time, with Ali Assadalla also winning player of the tournament and striker Boualem Khoukhi finishing top scorer, Qatar had much to be proud of. Yet perhaps the greatest achievement was that of Belmadi himself, whose ability in his handling of the players and their opponents in each match ensured all observers agreed he has a bright future in the dugout.
Following the final game, the coach told FIFA.com that “it was an ideal tournament. We turned in excellent performances in every match, scored a lot of goals, and we just kept winning! The players had the perfect attitude: they wanted to do their country proud and they succeeded. They have a bright future.”
Continental laurels for Qatari youth
Having secured qualification for the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship back in 2013, Qatar’s youngsters had a lengthy wait for the tournament to get underway in October in Myanmar. Though even their most optimistic supporters thought that the title would prove a step too far, the young starlets’ full faith in their ability helped translate their talents into further success.
Qatar’s U-19s got off to a perfect start with a win over one of the favourites Korea DPR, going on to top their group with two wins and a draw. They kept up the pace in the quarter-finals, beating China 4-2 and securing a berth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, but they were not done yet. A 3-2 victory over hosts Myanmar in the semis brought them face-to-face again with Korea DPR, where they reprised their earlier achievement and took the trophy via a 1-0 final win.
In the process of winning the competition for the first time Ahmed Al Sadi top scored and Ahmad Moein was named player of the tournament and, even as Qatar rejoiced in this unprecedented achievement, thoughts quickly turned to the country’s chances at New Zealand 2015. Beaten in the final of the 1981 edition to the former West Germany, Qatar made their second and last showing at the competition when they hosted it in 1995.
“It’s an indescribable delight. Today we’ve been crowned Asian U-19 champions for the first time,” said Spanish coach Felix Sanchez Bas, who masterminded the continental triumph, after the final. “This team has proved its worth and deserves the title. They are the future of Qatari football. They’ve made unbelievable efforts and deserve what they’ve achieved.”
Reclaiming top spot in the Gulf
And following Belmadi’s confirmed appointment as senior coach in March, the national team’s fortunes have risen steadily. One clear sign of this was the wins recorded in a series of international friendlies put on as part of Qatar’s preparations for the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015, but more convincing proof was soon forthcoming. Indeed, in November this upward momentum was affirmed when Qatar won the 22nd edition of the Gulf Cup of Nations in Saudi Arabia.
Regarded as outsiders going into the tournament, Belmadi’s charges made light of that status. Negotiating a high-pressure first-round stage in which they picked up three successive draws, they upped their game for the semi-finals, shrugging Oman aside 3-1 before turning things up another notch against Saudi Arabia in the final. An almost flawless and tactically-disciplined performance brought them a 2-1 win against the hosts and their third Gulf Cup title, ten years after their previous success.
“We knew the challenges we were going to come up against and we kept calm and collected, something that was most evident in the final stages,” said Belmadi after the match to FIFA.com. “We put in superb displays in the semis and the final. The players were fully prepared and deserved the title. It’s an important step towards a future which we look upon with confidence and a good deal of ambition.”
Former international stars were no less delighted with Qatar’s achievement and shared the belief that victory was well-deserved. “This is very happy day for Qatari football, which is back where it belongs,” said Wissam Rizq, part of the side that claimed Qatar’s second Gulf Cup title in 2004. “I now feel that like I’ve won two titles, not one! What really matters is that this latest title will give us the impetus to achieve even more in the near future.”
The President of the QFA, Shk. Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, was also clear that his country’s side had earned their crown: “You have to look at the way the team performed over the whole tournament. On that reckoning, Qatar were the best side there and deserved the title. In the final, they weren’t affected by playing away from home or by the opposition supporters and they put on a masterful performance. It’s a new start for us all and it will make us work even harder. Next up it’s the AFC Asian Cup, and we’ll go in with the same levels of concentration. We wish this promising team all the best.”
And having given their country’s football fans so much to celebrate this year, just what will 2015 bring for Qatar’s national sides?