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Embattled Qatar out to prove point at Asian Cup

Al-Ain (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Qatar are out to prove a point on the pitch as they begin their Asian Cup campaign under the cloud of the Gulf crisis and with the added scrutiny of hosting the next World Cup.

Coach Felix Sanchez said his players were determined to stay focused on the job at hand in the United Arab Emirates, one of the countries enforcing a damaging blockade on the 2022 World Cup hosts, ahead of Wednesday’s Group E opener against Lebanon.

“We’ve done the same that we are doing in any competition. We are here, we arrived, we are doing our training sessions,” he told reporters in Al Ain.

The diplomatic chill could make for a fraught atmosphere for Qatar, especially when they face arch-political rivals Saudi Arabia in Abu Dhabi on January 17.

“Once we are on the pitch, we are going to focus only on what happens inside,” he insisted. “As for crowd, of course they have to enjoy the game and to do what they think they have to do.

“From our side we’re going to be only focused on the game.”

The Asian Cup represents the first visit by Qatar’s national side to the UAE since the start of a row that has transformed the Gulf and left Doha cut off from its neighbouring former allies.

Since June 2017, the UAE and other regional powers have imposed a boycott on Qatar, accusing it of backing terrorism and being too close to Iran. 

– 2022 vision –

In the build-up to the tournament, senior Qatari football official Saoud al-Mohannadi and a group of journalists claimed they were barred from entering UAE. Al-Mohannadi eventually entered the Emirates on Friday.

In 2022, Qatar will be in the uncomfortable position of being the first post-war World Cup hosts never to have previously qualified for the competition.

“We’re going to try to show that we are able to compete against all Asian teams that we’re going to face in the competition, and to compete and compete well,” Sanchez said.

“I’m quite sure that this group of players are able to compete against all teams in Asia and now it’s time to show they have the qualities and the commitment,” he added. 

With one eye on the World Cup, Qatar have one of the youngest squads at the Asian Cup, including the core of the side that won the Asian under-19 championship in 2014.

But Sanchez said any thoughts of 2022, when the tiny desert state will welcome the world’s best teams, were far from his mind.

“This is going to be another step for us to prepare of course for the World Cup,” said the Spaniard. 

“But for us the main target now is only to think about this competition because at the end of the day we’re here to try to perform well, and this will give us the experience and the knowledge for further competitions.”

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