Of the 12 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) teams anxiously awaiting Tuesday’s draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup third-round qualifiers, arguably Qatar has the most at stake.
Since being controversially chosen to host the 2022 tournament, the Gulf state has been battered by ongoing allegations of corruption, charges it denies, and labor abuse, which it claims to be addressing through reform.
This week’s draw, though — which is to see the dozen remaining AFC sides split into two groups of six, with the top two from each qualifying for Russia — addresses another criticism, namely that Qatar has little or no soccer history.
Russia 2018 represents Qatar’s last chance to qualify for a World Cup on merit before automatically playing as hosts in 2022.
If Jose Daniel Carreno’s emerging side manage to progress from the third round, they would make history as the first Qatari team to play in soccer’s biggest tournament.
Fail and Qatar would face four years of inevitable sneering that come 2022 their place among the sport’s elite would be due only to the energy-rich nation’s extraordinary wealth in being able to host a US$30 billion World Cup.
“It is important that we are there [Russia],” said Hassan Al-Thawadi, head of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body overseeing organization of the 2022 World Cup. “The fact of having 2022 is an extra motivation for the players.”
Despite the burden of expectation and, no doubt, many critics wanting to see Qatar fail, they have got to the third round with one of the most impressive qualifying records in the AFC.
They won the first seven of their eight Group C matches, losing only to China in the final match, when Qatar’s progress to the next round was already assured.
Along the way, they set a record for their biggest ever victory — 15-0 versus Bhutan — and finished with a goal difference of plus-25.
However, that has only served to increase the pressure.
“The dominance Qatar showed in the group stages of Round 2 would have immensely increased the expectation of the people,” sports journalist Joe Koraith said. “They have also been playing a style of football that is pleasing to the eye.”
Qatar’s task is tough, especially as they are only the ninth-highest ranked team out of the remaining 12, according to FIFA, ahead of Iraq, Syria and Thailand.
Iran and Australia are the two highest-ranked sides, both more than 30 places higher than 83rd-placed Qatar.
Regional powers and perennial World Cup teams, such as Japan and South Korea, are in Tuesday’s draw, which takes place in Kuala Lumpur.
“The real test for Carreno starts now,” Doha Stadium Plus reporter Ganesh Neelakantan said. “Iran are the highest-ranked among the 12 teams, but Qatar would be more comfortable playing them than Australia, South Korea and Japan.”
Also in the draw are Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates and China.
A lifeline exists for the teams finishing third to go into a playoff for Russia against a team from the Americas.
However, Qatar are hoping to qualify automatically.
“If Qatar can pull it off, it could be the biggest moment in the country’s football history,” Neelakantan said.
KEY GOAL: Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei is now free to focus on taking her fourth doubles title of the year with Barbora Strycova; they are due to face Nao Hibino and Makoto Ninomiya Taiwanese No. 1 Hsieh Su-wei on Monday returned to the court for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the WTA Tour, falling to a 6-3, 6-1 defeat to US Open quarter-finalist Elise Mertens, who made a solid transition from the hard courts in New York to the clay at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. “I’m not sure how well I adapted, to be honest,” Mertens told the WTA Web site. “I just feel like I might still be struggling a little. It was also [Hsieh’s] first match of the week, so that was a bit of an
‘GREAT EVENING‘: In the women’s singles in Rome, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova advanced, while Rafael Nadal swept into the quarters in the men’s singles Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic on Friday had to dig deep to advance to the semi-finals of the women’s doubles at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. The top seeds, who did not drop a game in their opening match on the clay courts at the Foro Italico, battled to a 7-6 (7/5), 6-4 victory over sixth seeds Veronika Kudermetova and Katerina Siniakova in 1 hour, 39 minutes. The reigning Wimbledon champions saved nine of 11 break points and converted three of eight, winning 56 percent of points on their second serve and sending down two aces
‘FUN TIME’: Denver’s Nikola Jokic said that his team would not accept that anyone else is better than them and the opposition need to play much better than they do Just about everyone had LA versus LA written in for the NBA’s Western Conference finals, but the resilient Denver Nuggets have crashed the party. Behind Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2009 to face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Game 1 is scheduled to be played tomorrow. This was no ordinary road. The Nuggets fell behind 3-1 in their first-round series against the Utah Jazz before bouncing back with three straight victories. Then they went down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round before winning in Game 7
Neymar on Sunday claimed that he had been the victim of racism as he was one of five players sent off in a mass brawl at the end of Olympique de Marseille’s 1-0 win over Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain. PSG’s Brazilian star appeared to accuse Alvaro Gonzalez of calling him a “monkey” in a series of furious tweets after he was sent off in stoppage-time for slapping the Marseille defender on the back of the head. “Look at the racism. That’s why I hit him,” Neymar, who was returning from COVID-19 quarantine, said as he left the pitch. “The only regret I