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LUGANO, Switzerland – With four years to go before the next World Cup opens in Qatar, the small gulf country's national soccer team is on the rise but still has a long, long way to go.
Qatar surprisingly won the right to host the 2022 tournament eight years ago, when it was ranked 113th in the world by FIFA. On Wednesday, exactly four years before the next World Cup is scheduled to open at Lusail Stadium outside Doha, the country still will be only No. 96.
There are positives, however, including Qatar's 1-0 victory over Switzerland last week in a friendly match — an eye-opening result against a team that reached the round of 16 at the last two World Cups.
"It's a big win for us especially (because) a lot of people don't know us," Qatar midfielder Assim Madibo said. "I think they will know us more after this game ... Now we are only focusing on playing big games so we will get respect and people will know us."
Respect has been hard to come by for Qatar's national team and the country's hosting of the tournament in general. The team's ranking has fluctuated between No. 78 and No. 112 since the December 2010 vote, and concerns about labor conditions for migrant workers has been an ongoing issue.
The win over Switzerland and subsequent 2-2 draw against Iceland were good signs, though a far cry from the progress Iceland has made in the same eight years, rising from No. 110 in the FIFA rankings to No. 36 following a quarterfinal run at the 2016 European Championship.
Still, the team is improving under coach Felix Sanchez, who spent a decade as a youth coach at Barcelona before becoming Qatar's ninth coach in eight years.
Against the Swiss, the Qataris defended well and played their way out of danger rather than kicking long balls out from the back. The passing was crisp and accurate and it was from one of the frequent attempts at a breakaway that Akram Afif scored the game's only goal in the 86th minute.
They're not quite Barcelona, but they're not too bad, either.
"I was working there for 10 years," Sanchez said of his time at Barcelona. "When you go to work in a different place you need to adapt your philosophy. There are many things that we tried to keep and there are games where we can show more.
"There are games where we cannot do 100 percent what we have to do and of course you have the opposition in front ... we need to do more things that we're not used to do but it's the way to compete."
Most of the players who traveled to Europe for the two friendlies are young and all are based in Qatar — 90 percent of them having graduated from the state-of-the-art Aspire training academy. But with an average age of 24, many will be hitting their peak in 2022.
Qatar has also beaten Iraq, China, Palestine and Ecuador this year, but sterner competition is expected next year at both the Asian Cup and the Copa America, where the country is competing as a guest nation and could end up facing Brazil and Argentina.
"It's steps we have to do to arrive in 2022 ready to compete," said Sanchez, who knows his players well after working with most of them on under-age teams and at Aspire.
"Of course, for the players it's a big motivation to play against such teams and start to feel what is the real pressure in official competition against one of the top national teams in the world like Brazil, Argentina or one of those."
Although Sanchez seems like the perfect fit because of his years of experience in Qatar, there is no guarantee he will still have his job in four years. Especially with high-profile possibilities like Pep Guardiola and Xavi Hernandez, both with experience playing in Qatar, being mentioned as potential future candidates.
Guardiola's contract as manager at Manchester City expires in 2021, while Xavi — who plays for Qatari club Al Sadd — has said he would like to someday move into coaching.
"Of course it will be a dream to be there but four years in football is ... you cannot say," Sanchez said, smiling wryly. "Hopefully."
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