When United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter visited Qatar in 2019, it was, in essence, a fact-finding mission. Three years ahead of the 2022 World Cup — the first to ever be held in the Middle East — the idea was to scout stadium locations and get a general feel for the country. While he was there, Berhalter spent time at the Aspire Academy in Doha, which plays a significant role in developing players for the Qatar national team and serves as the team’s base of operations.
On these types of trips, it’s common for best practices to be shared between technical staffs, and Berhalter came away familiar with the Qatari game model. So for Berhalter, it didn’t come as a surprise when Qatar arrived at the Gold Cup and entertained neutral fans with an open, counterattacking brand of soccer that led to a tournament-best nine goals during the group stage in games against Panama (3-3), Grenada (4-0) and Honduras (2-0).
“They have an exciting game model,” Berhalter said. “It’s heavily based on offensive transition.”
Prior to the Gold Cup, however, getting a sense for Qatar’s level relative to teams outside its region would have been difficult. Every player on their roster this summer plies their trade in the Qatari domestic league and though they won the Asian Cup in 2019, they also went winless as a guest team at the Copa America in the same year, drawing vs. Paraguay and suffering slim losses to Colombia and Argentina.
That’s what made Qatar’s inclusion in the Gold Cup so intriguing.
They will play in the Arab Cup at the end of the year, but the Gold Cup provided the final chance to see the next World Cup hosts competitively out of their region before the sporting world turns its attention to the Gulf state for FIFA’s showcase competition in November 2022. And, much like the case was for the United States prior to the World Cup on home soil in 1994, there is a sense of obligation for Qatar to have a respectable showing as hosts next year.
This explained Qatar’s desire to take part in the CONCACAF event, which ended in the semifinals with a 1-0 loss to the United States, a game that easily could have swung the other way and ended their 12-match unbeaten streak.
“We played in different schools [of soccer] away from Asia and these are great lessons for us that we learned,” Qatar defender Tarek Salman told ESPN through an interpreter. “And now everybody knows how the Qatari team is strong. Everybody in Asia, in Africa, everyone, they speak about us positively. This [tournament] had a very good impact on us positively, so that we can perhaps win in the World Cup.”
A single win at the World Cup would be an unqualified success for Qatar next year and would likely be dependent on the draw, which isn’t scheduled to take place until April. The team showed it is capable of striking on the counter and putting pressure on defenders in space, but it’s one thing to do that against teams like Panama, Honduras and El Salvador — all infrequent participants in the World Cup — and another thing entirely against the caliber of opponents it could see in the group stage.
With that understood, Qatar’s style of play lends itself to being able to catch lightning in a bottle; they’re perfectly content to concede possession in order to try to find a moment of magic during a transition. That type of isolated success is a realistic objective for a team that doesn’t have the talent or depth to realistically expect to reach the knockout rounds; then again, Qatar was of the belief it exceeded external expectations during its Gold Cup run.
“It was not expected that we, as an Arab team, would reach the semifinals,” said Homan Ahmed, through an interpreter. “We wanted to reach the final, but we could not do that. We have a great deal of ambition to perform very well in the World Cup in Qatar… it’s a huge positive that we played in this Gold Cup.”
Against an experimental United States team that won’t look much like the version Berhalter takes to World Cup qualifying, Qatar pushed the tempo for the first 60 minutes or so before a missed penalty seemingly took the wind out of their sails. Even before the missed penalty factored into the equation, the United States expected Qatar to be running on fumes in the match’s final stretch. After that, it was the Americans who controlled the tempo and created the better chances leading up to Gyasi Zardes’ winner in the 86th minute.
For Berhalter, it was the chance to make in-game tactical decisions against an unfamiliar opponent — a rare opportunity for a CONCACAF nation — and for Qatar, it revealed a fatal flaw that it will have over a year to correct. Every bit of information will be evaluated by both sides under the World Cup lens.
“It was great for us — we have a better knowledge [of the U.S. now],” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said. “If we need to face them again in official competition, which should be hopefully in 2022, we’re going to be used to it and it’s an experience that hopefully we’re going to benefit from in the future.”
Qatar’s next tests come in September with a trio of friendlies against Serbia, Portugal and Luxembourg, prior to its next batch of competitive matches in the Area Cup starting Nov. 11.