Beaten finalists Qatar lower expectations in 2017

3 min

Paris (AFP)

Surprise finalists in 2015, Qatar began their quest for the world handball crown with a disappointing defeat against Egypt, and have appropriately set their sights a little lower this year.

Even before Friday's 22-20 loss, Qatar's Spanish coach Valero Rivera, said the team's aim was to make the quarter-finals.

"Qatar's goal at the World Cup is to finish in the top eight, and we will fight for it," said Valera.

But on the back of a poor start in Paris, a disappointing Olympics in Rio, a tough group and resurgent rivals, even that might seem tough.

Their remarkable performance in the last world championships, held in Qatar, inspired awe and not a little controversy.

They became the first non-European side to reach a world handball final, knocking out traditional powerhouses along the way such as Poland and Germany, before losing in the final to the French -- a remarkable achievement for a nation ranked 20th in 2013.

But the ascent of the tiny Gulf nation to the top table of world handball was undoubtedly resented in some quarters, with critics pointing to a hastily assembled international team of "mercenaries".

Among Qatar's squad two years ago were players born in Montenegro, Serbia, Cuba, France, Spain, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia.

Only a maximum of four players in the 17-man squad were born in Qatar.

And it did not go unnoticed by opponents.

Austrian goalkeeper Thomas Bauer said after his team were defeated by the Qataris that it felt "like playing against a world selection team".

Adding to the criticism it emerged during the championship that Qatar had also paid for Spanish fans to attend the championships and cheer the Gulf side to create some atmosphere in a sport not that well-known to locals.

This time round, although they are still reliant on naturalised players, Qatar no longer include players such as the Montenegrin Zarko Markovic or Spanish pivot Borja Fernandez.

They will still rely heavily on experienced European players such as Bosnian Serb Danijel Saric in goal and Cuban Rafael Capote -- who scored five against Egypt.

But do they have the strength in depth? Not according to Olivier Krumbholz, coach of the French women's team.

"There are major players who are missing, but there are also major players who will be there," said Krumbholz.

"From the moment we remove very good players, the ones who replace them are much worse," he said.

"Qatar's squad is not as strong as the other major nations, and this could hamper them at this World Championship."

Adding to the question marks, they have been drawn in Group D alongside Olympic champions Denmark.

Even getting to the knockout stages may prove a task for Qatar.