From victories against England and Brazil to a France 98 qualifier, Qatar’s national football history stretches back much further than just hosting this World Cup
In 2011, football great author Brian Glanville called Qatar a “pathetic little anonymity of a footballing country”.
Eleven years later, that impression was repeated by almost everyone I mentioned Qatar football to.
There can be an incredibly fine line between legitimate criticism and lazy discrimination, and often one is lumped together for dramatic effect.
Since winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has rightly come under scrutiny for its LGBT+ and human rights abuses.
But not paying due attention to the footballing history and heritage of this tiny country can lead to the accusations of racism that Qataris have recently leveled.
This is a nation that, despite having a population of just 476,000, managed to qualify for the World Cup twice in one game in 1990. They were also runners-up at the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championship and have participated in two Olympic Games in soccer.
They did all this with Qatari-born players before Sheikh Hamad Al Thani deposed his father in a bloodless coup and sparked the nation’s exponential financial and political growth.
More recently, this country, with less than 7,500 registered footballers, won the 2019 Asian Cup and didn’t concede a goal until the 3-1 final win over Japan.
James Montague, author of When Friday Comes: Football Revolution in the Middle East and the road to Qatar, narrates I: “There is a lot of very valid criticism of Qatar, but comments like Glanville’s make us in the West look like we are dealing with Orientalism.
“That’s something that Qataris are using a lot at the moment – the idea that [criticism against them] is racism, orientalism, a conspiracy.
“Much of this is a way to deflect legitimate criticism. Quotes like Glanville’s give them a legitimate reason to distract.”
Montague points to qualifying for the 1998 World Cup as a losing turning point for Qatari football. In front of 20,000 fans at Doha’s Khalifa Stadium, Qatar lost 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in a draw that would have taken them to France ’98.
They had even defeated Iran in qualifying – who famously beat the USA in that tournament.
“If they had qualified you would have had a very different attitude towards Qatar and the simple criticism that there is no football culture would be much more difficult to blame him,” Montague said.
Qatar’s first touch of a World Cup of any kind came instead 17 years earlier, at the Fifa World Youth Championship in Australia, the equivalent of today’s U20 World Cup.
Led by former Brazil coach Evaristo de Macedo, the side known as ‘Al Ennabi’, literally ‘The Maroon’, shocked Brazil and England youth sides before losing to West Germany in the final.
Fifa technical report after Brazil game read: “Brazil lost to amazing Qatar”.
Evaristo then managed a full Qatari team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Their first game was a 2-2 draw against European champions France. While they lost their other two games, Qatar had made it to a global football tournament on merit and played against a great football power.
As in 1998, they qualified for Italia 90 in one game.
Qatar had to wait until the 1992 Olympics for their next global tournament. After beating Egypt and drawing against Colombia in their group, they were lost to eventual finalists Poland.
As insignificant as they may seem to fans of major footballing nations, Qatar laid the foundations of a footballing culture at these tournaments.
Heroes emerged – Mubarak Mustafa was worshiped after he scored against Egypt in the 1992 Olympics win. Badr Bilal’s overhead kick against England at the 1981 youth championships made him a temporary star of Qatari sport. Evaristo coached Qatar in every global tournament they competed in until 1992.
“What changes is that Hamad al-Thani becomes emir in 1995,” Montague said.
“He exploited Qatar’s natural oil and gas resources at exactly the right time and it is fast becoming one of the richest countries in the world. They develop at breakneck speed and very quickly understand that sports and especially football are good for nation building.