Riyadh: Given the seemingly desperate state of Qatari football at the moment, it is worth remembering one thing — they are still Asian champions.
The fact they were crowned champions of Asia just over four years ago, and yet now are seemingly staring into the abyss, shows how quickly things have unraveled for last year’s World Cup hosts.
As if the embarrassment of their performances on the biggest stage was not bad enough, the sour taste lingered when several players, headlined by former Asian player of the year, Abdelkarim Hassan, were suspended by the Qatar Football Association for issues related to the World Cup camp.
That was followed by Al-Duhail’s 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Al-Hilal in the AFC Champions League semi-final. The exclamation point was put on a miserable few months when the national under-20 side bowed out of the AFC U20 Asian Cup without winning a game, capitulating to Australia 9-1 in their final group game.
How did things get so bad?
Fouad El-Fdil, a former coach and scout at Aspire Academy, told Arab News: “Until the Asian Cup, that we won in 2019, I think we had a beautiful development.
“But, after that, it feels like we didn’t have a new plan for five or 10 years to keep developing and to keep pushing forward.
“Of course, I understand that the budget is under pressure, especially with the World Cup coming, and after the World Cup we all knew that things would go down a little bit. But having a plan is more important than having a big budget. It all starts with a plan.
“And also, you need to refresh your national team. You need new, ambitious, and hungry players to refresh the national team.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t see, and I didn’t feel like there was a clear plan for how to keep feeding the national team with new talents,” he said.
Recent results at youth level — they also bombed out of last year’s AFC U23 Asian Cup without winning a game — would suggest that perhaps there is a dearth of talent coming through, but El-Fdil refutes that.
“In my opinion, and in my experience, there was absolutely no lack of talent and no lack of potential.
“I would say the opposite, there is enough talent and enough potential. I would even go a step further; the 2003, 2004, and 2005 generations may be the best generations we ever had in Aspire Academy.
“I’ve worked with all three generations so I can speak from experience, and I can tell you that in this generation there are some very good players.
“If you look at Mubarak Shenan, Ahmed Al-Rawi, Rashed Al-Abdullah, Saifeldeen Fadlalla, they have some fantastic players.
“That’s the reason I was shocked, I couldn’t believe that this generation would leave the Asian Cup with zero points because I had high expectations, and I expected them to compete for a title,” El-Fdil added.
While results at national team level shine a light on the football ecosystem, they are simply a manifestation of what sits below it at club level, and it is here that El-Fdil, who spent time working as the sporting director at Al-Gharafa, pinpoints the real cracks in the Qatari system.
Now working at NAC Breda in the Netherlands, he said: “The QSL (Qatar Stars League) launched a plan and said they want to make it a more entertaining league.
“But what we are seeing now is that we have full stadiums in Saudi Arabia, and even full stadiums in the UAE, but we don’t see full stadiums in Qatar. I think after the World Cup it looks like there is no clear follow up on how to develop the league and how to develop academies.”
Last year, Ahmed Abbassi, the QSL’s executive director of competitions and football development, told “The Asian Game” podcast that he wanted the QSL to become a talent nursery; a steppingstone for talent before venturing to Europe.
While noble in its intent, making it a reality is proving difficult as clubs continue to prioritize experienced foreigners, which they turn over in unsustainably high numbers.
He said: “One of the points that I’ve always raised, even when I was at Al-Gharafa, is that the foundation is the level of your local players.
“Because you can always replace your coach, and you can always replace your foreign players. You’ve seen it in the last few years; they come in, they go out, and some of them have big experience.
“At Al-Gharafa we had the Mexican captain, Hector Moreno, and in the QSL he was suffering. Is it because of Hector, or is it because of the league and the players around him, and the way we play football?
“So, what I felt is that sometimes we sign big players, but they end up in a situation where they cannot help the team because of the level of the local players.”
El-Fdil cited disagreements he had with the hierarchy at Al-Gharafa over the reluctance to give more playing time to younger players, which he argued would have longer-term benefits.
“I think what’s lacking is a long-term vision. It’s always something you have in the first team; in the short term you need to win the next game, but at the same time, you need to invest in the long term and you need to make sure that the players, especially the talented players you have in your club, you give them playing time and make sure you have a plan to develop them.
“Because at the end, the foundation is the level of local players. You can change the foreigners all the time, but it will not solve the problem. The level of the local players, you need to raise this level and you need to have a clear plan for this,” El-Fdil added.