Qatar one win away from world stage
Qatar are just one win away from qualifying for the Olympics but victory against South Korea at the AFC U23 championships on Tuesday will mean more than a trip to Brazil.
The tournament, which has been taking place in Doha for the past fortnight, is down to the final stages.
Three of the four teams left in the competition -- Japan and Iraq are the other two sides -- will qualify for Rio if they win one of their next two matches, either in the semi-finals or, for the losers, the third/fourth play-off.
Japan and South Korea have made 15 Olympics appearances between them and not getting to Rio would represent failure.
Iraq managed a fourth place in Greece in 2004, their only appearance.
But Qatar have not qualified for the Olympics since the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
An appearance in Brazil would not only represent a first Olympics for 24 years but also provide further proof that its huge investment in football on the pitch, as well as off it, is paying dividends.
One of the many criticisms levelled at Qatar -- aside from the issues of corruption and human rights -- is that the tiny Gulf nation has no footballing pedigree.
It has never qualified for a World Cup or won an Asian Cup. Its domestic league is weak, despite the addition of big names such as Xavi Hernandez.
- 'No fear' -
Internationally though, Qatar is undoubtedly improving.
While, for many, the focus of Qatar and World Cups is 2022, the Gulf state has its eye on 2018.
The current national side has a good chance of making history by becoming the first Qatari team to qualify for the World Cup, having breezed through its qualification for Russia so far with a 100 per cent record.
And success in the current under-23 tournament suggests the junior ranks are also improving.
"Whatever happens (against South Korea) what results are telling us is that Qatar sides are increasing in competitiveness," Ivan Bravo, the director general of Aspire, the world-renowned training centre established in 2004, told AFP.
"These players are not fearing anybody and are able to compete with sides that are much more established."
Aside from securing the 2022 World Cup and pouring billions into infrastructure for the tournament, energy-rich Qatar has also been investing its money from oil and gas into players.
Twenty one of the 23 players who eased Qatar through group stage victories over Iran, Syria and China and an extra-time last 16 win over North Korea at the Under-23 tournament, passed through the Aspire Academy system.
This a talent-spotting programme meant to push Qatar onto the sporting world stage.
Aspire itself is located in Doha and has attracted visits from teams and academies including giants such as Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain.
Its facilities are second-to-none with an indoor football pitch with room for 5,800 spectators, running tracks, two multi-sports halls and a world-leading sports hospital.
Its tentacles stretch outside Qatar.
Aspire bought Belgian second division side KAS Eupen to give academy players vital league experience, including teenage forward Akram Afif, who plays for the current under-23 side.
But Bravo, a former "director of strategy" at Real Madrid, says money is not the reason behind the success but cites instead, "trust" and the "quality of people".
And even though Qatar has a national pool of just some 6,500 players, Bravo strongly refutes that Aspire has plucked the best players from overseas and handed them Qatari passports, saying "very much the majority (of the under-23 team) were born in Doha".
"A few, a very few, that were not born in Doha, they have been in Qatar since five or six years of age," he said. "The goal is to have a Doha-based, Doha-born national team."
Felix Sanchez, the U23-team's manager and a former Barcelona youth coach, says Qatar's "level is getting better and better".
And can Qatar surprise people?
"I hope. If they can keep working in the way they are doing so far, why not? In 2022, why not? In 2018 in Russia to have a team there."
© 2016 AFP