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Qatar's mystery men may not be the 2022 World Cup flops they're expected to be

Gianni Infantino believes Russia 2018 is the benchmark for Qatar to live up to at the 2022 World Cup.

LUGANO, Switzerland -- Xherdan Shaqiri was shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders in the players' tunnel of Lugano's ageing Stadio Cornaredo, attempting to explain how Switzerland, sitting in eighth position in the FIFA World Ranking, had lost 1-0 to Qatar.

"It is difficult when you play a team of players you don't know," the Liverpool forward told ESPN FC. "In those kind of games, you can only lose.

"We watched them on video, but we didn't know their players at all, so it was difficult. Still, they deserved to win."

For all of the focus -- and there has been plenty -- on Qatar's suitability as the host nation of the 2022 World Cup, the spotlight has largely avoided focusing on the strength, or otherwise, of the tiny Gulf nation's football team.

Felix Sanchez Bas' players are a group of unknowns. The squad for the game in Lugano -- against a side that reached the round of 16 at this year's World Cup finals -- and next week's friendly against Iceland in Eupen, Belgium, was made up entirely of players based in Qatar.

FIFA ranks them at 96th in the world, sitting between the Faroe Islands and India, yet next Wednesday (Nov. 21) marks the beginning of the four-year countdown to Qatar 2022. When they kick off the most controversial World Cup in history, they will not be able to rely on the element of surprise to upset more established nations, as they did in Lugano.

Only one previous host nation, South Africa, has failed to progress beyond the group stage of their World Cup, but Bafana Bafana at least went out with a bang in 2010 by eliminating France with a 2-1 victory in Bloemfontein. This year's hosts, Russia, shocked the world by avoiding that fate and even eliminating Spain en route to the quarterfinals.

Qatar, having never previously qualified for a World Cup, are aiming not only to win a game but make it into the knockout phase, so the pressure is growing on the team to become competitive.

Most of Qatar's internationals were born and raised in the small Gulf state
The vast majority of Qatar's national team is made up of players who were born and raised in the small Gulf state.

"The players were celebrating in dressing room [in Lugano] because we have beaten a team of players who play in the Champions League and major leagues in Europe," coach Sanchez Bas told ESPN FC. "It shows we are playing in the right way.

"The purpose of the game was to see where we are and whether we can compete with the best teams in the world."

As Shaqiri acknowledged, Qatar's players are by no means household names. So who are the Qatari players?

Akram Afif, whose second-half goal won the game for Qatar, is clearly a talent. The 21-year-old winger is on loan at Doha-based Al Sadd from Villarreal, having spent time with Sevilla as a youngster.

He has pace and trickery and could have scored two other goals against the Swiss.

Qatar captain Hassan Khalid Al Haidos, also with Al Sadd, is the No. 10 who bears a striking resemblance to Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez in terms of stature and style of play.

Right-back Pedro Miguel Carvalho deus Correia -- known as Ro-Ro -- is a naturalised Portuguese, while forward Almoez Ali is Sudan-born, but the rest of Sanchez Bas's squad are Qatar born-and-raised.

Although Al Haidos and Afif are not imposing figures, the rest of the Qatar players are more robust, with the defenders not lacking muscle or tenacity. Tactically, they play 4-3-3, a system that appears to suit the players.

"This is a group of players that I have known for a long time and, although we have limitations -- we are a very small country with 500,000 people -- with hard work, you can get some results," Sanchez Bas said. "The FIFA ranking is obvious, but once in the field, you compete.

"But while we like to pass the ball, against a team like Switzerland, you have to accept that you have to play another way sometimes and this is good for our development."

Xherdan Shaqiri captained Switzerland as they lost a home international friendly to Qatar
Xherdan Shaqiri helped Switzerland reach the knockout phase at the 2018 World Cup but his side fell to Qatar at home.

Lugano is a small city in southern Switzerland, a place so sleepy you can hear your footsteps while walking around Lake Lugano.

If you are looking to fly under the radar, it is as good a place as any to do so and Qatar kept a low profile before and after the game.

There was no high-powered delegation from the Qatar Football Association to accompany Sanchez Bas's team, no grandstanding about the 2022 World Cup.

And with only 4,170 turning up to watch the game, it seemed as though the Swiss public were not inclined to pull back the curtain to see what kind of team will carry the pressure of World Cup hosts in four years' time.

Sanchez Bas, a former youth coach at Barcelona, has worked in Qatar since 2006, starting out at the internationally renowned Aspire Academy before progressing through the ranks of the country's under-age teams until taking charge of the seniors in 2017.

He is Qatar's eighth coach in nine years and laughed when asked whether he will still be around in four years' time -- "You cannot say, but hopefully. It would be a dream."

Qatar may have little international pedigree beyond three Arabian Gulf Cup titles -- Kuwait lead the way with 10 -- but in 2018, they have now played seven games and lost once, to Uzbekistan in October.

This year, they have beaten Iraq, China, Palestine, Ecuador and now the Swiss, but the climb will get tougher in 2019, with Qatar contesting the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in January before participating in next summer's Copa America in Brazil as a guest nation.

Akram Afif scores Qatar's winner against Switzerland
Akram Afif's winner against Switzerland was his sixth international goal of 2018.

"We have a young generation and we are aiming to do better in the Asian Cup and then go to the Copa America and build towards the World Cup," captain Al Haidos told ESPN FC.

"We have the ambition to compete with the powerhouses of Asia, but we have the ability and the quality to compete with them. We are improving over time.

"The pressure is always there with the World Cup in 2022, but with time the players will get the experience to handle that."

With stars like Wesley Sneijder (Al Gharafa), Xavi and Gabi (both Al Sadd) playing in the Qatar Stars League, top-level international experience is beginning to drip-feed into the domestic game.

"Xavi has had his influence on the team, he has improved us," Al Haidos said. "We have learned from him a lot."

The most valuable lessons will come from exposure to high-level opposition, however, and Sanchez Bas said the Copa America will be an invaluable test on the road to the World Cup.

"That will be an important tournament, so there will be a lot of pressure," he said. "But these are the steps we must take to be ready in 2022.

"The Asian Cup is a very tough tournament for us because of strong teams like Australia, Japan, South Korea and Iran, who compete well in the World Cup.

"But once we finish this, then it is the Copa America and it is a big motivation for the players to play against some of the top national teams in the world such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

"We are No. 96 in the rankings and that is for a reason," Sanchez Bas continued, "so we have to keep making the step up and be used to playing the best in the world if we are to be ready for 2022."

It is a long road ahead, but Lugano showed that Qatar are heading the right direction.

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