If you’re watching the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship for national teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, you probably did a double take after seeing Qatar in action.
Qatar, of course, plays in the Asian region and it is the reigning Asian champion after winning that continental title in 2019. But as the tiny Persian Gulf nation (population near three million) gets set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it’s trying every way possible to get its national team the best competition it can find in the hope it can have a good showing next year.
The Qataris’ participation in the Gold Cup, where they have advanced to the semifinals, fits that plan.
How did the Qatar get into the Gold Cup?
The soccer governing bodies in the Asian and CONCACAF regions formed a working strategic partnership in 2018 to support the growth of soccer in both parts of the world.
It was an agreement that contemplated competitive opportunities, among other things. The two regions have also committed to referee exchanges and sharing best practices around the hosting of the World Cup. Qatar hosts the event in 2022, followed by the USA, Canada and Mexico in 2026.
As part of that arrangement, Qatar was invited to participate in the 2021 and 2023 Gold Cup tournaments. It won’t hurt that Qatar’s invitation has also led to Qatar Airways joining on as a multi-year tournament sponsor .
And it makes great sense for the Qataris, who have been on a world tour in recent years as they get set to put their best foot forward as World Cup hosts.
Why is Qatar playing in the Gold Cup?
Qatar is serious about getting games against quality opponents.
As 2022 World Cup host, Qatar automatically earns a berth to the event, but it’s still playing in Asian World Cup qualifying matches since those games also double as 2023 Asian championship qualifiers.
In addition, it’s participating as a “shadow” team in Group A of European World Cup qualifying , just so it can get games against European competition. Qatar’s matches are considered friendlies and they don’t count in that group’s standings, but Qatar has fared well so far: beating both Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, and tying the Republic of Ireland (highlights below) earlier this year.
And this summer, in addition to the Gold Cup, Qatar was scheduled to play in the South American championship for national teams, the 2021 Copa America, but it withdrew earlier this year due to an apparent scheduling conflict. Qatar had already participated in the 2019 Copa America, where it played Paraguay (2-2 draw), Argentina (2-0 loss) and Colombia (1-0 loss) in the group stage.
Gold Cup guest invites not unprecedented
Special guest teams at international competitions is not a new practice in global soccer. CONMEBOL, the South American soccer body, regularly invited Mexico to its Copa America and the USA participated in the Copa America in 1993, 1995, 2007 and 2016, advancing to the semis on two occasions (1995, 2016).
CONCACAF has invited teams in the past to help boost the level of world-class competition at the Gold Cup and provide quality opposition for its teams, and it started with one of the best out there: Brazil got an invite to three Gold Cup tournaments in 1996 (second place), 1998 (third place) and 2003 (second place). Other Gold Cup invitees have included Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, South Africa and South Korea.
But with the quality of its national teams improving considerably, CONCACAF moved away from the practice after 2005 and Qatar’s invitation has been the first one since then.
Gold Cup all-time guest teams
- 1996: Brazil
- 1998: Brazil
- 2000: Colombia, Peru, South Korea
- 2002: Ecuador, South Korea
- 2003: Brazil, Colombia
- 2005: South Africa, Colombia
Qatar’s schedule at the Gold Cup
Qatar, coached by Spaniard Felix Sanchez, played group stage matches in Houston and put on a show against Panama (3-3), Grenada (4-0 win) and Honduras (2-0 win) to finish top of Group D.
Qatar’s No. 58 world ranking was the fifth-best going into the 16-team Gold Cup. Its standout players have included captain Hassan Al-Haydos (above), forward Almoez Ali, who was top scorer at the 2019 Asian Championship, and sensational winger Akram Afif.
Still unbeaten in 2021, Qatar will feel like it can now reach the final after knocking off El Salvador in a dramatic 3-2 quarterfinal victory. Next up will be the USA or Jamaica in the semifinals.
It would probably be considered a success if the Asian champs can advance far enough to get a game against regional powers Mexico or the USA, potential opponents at the 2022 World Cup. And those two teams would also probably welcome the opportunity for the same reason.