The Asian Cup four years ago was a chance for the hosts Qatar to show they were capable of running a major football tournament – coming as it did a month after they had been awarded the right to host the World Cup – and their their footballers might not be totally embarrassed on the pitch come 2022.
In the latter aim they partially succeeded, with a pulsating 3-2 defeat against eventual champions Japan in the quarter-finals. But the jury was still very much out on the hosts after an organisational debacle left thousands of fans locked out of the Australia-Japan final.
Now, the Qataris have no such off-field pressure as they prepare for an opening Asian Cup 2015 fixture against close neighbours the United Arab Emirates on Sunday in Group C – one that also includes Bahrain and Iran.
The man who had lit up that fixture against Japan in 2011, Fabio Cesar Montezine, is an example of Qatar’s policy of naturalising foreign players – Fabio, still in the Qatari setup but not in Australia, is a Brazilian who came to Doha via Sao Paulo and Napoli.
But a clampdown on eligibility by FIFA has led to Qatar looking to Qataris to fill their teamsheet, with two thirds of those playing in Australia now having been born in the Emirate of around two million people.
Missing in action
The new state of play is also partially down to the outstanding ASPIRE academy on the outskirts of Doha – although the first graduate to play for Qatar has seen his career stall since an open-goal miss at the Asian Games in 2010 has gone down as one of the worst ever.
Raised in Doha long before ASPIRE was ever built, though, is Khalfan Ibrahim Khalfan. The 26-year-old will be Qatar’s main threat Down Under, and given a talent far beyond that of most of his teammates, may still operate as the team’s elder statesman in 2022.
Khalfan, known as the ‘Qatari Maradona’ after an astonishing solo goal in a cup final two years ago, became the first Qatari Asian footballer of the year as a teenager all the way back in 2006. He has 22 goals in 81 games for the Maroons.
Qatar has often been in the footballing spotlight for all the wrong reasons in the last four years.
With Khalfan leading a team of true Qataris onto the pitch in Canberra on Sunday, it could be time for the country to show it can actually play football, at least before the focus again turns to off-field matters as the years to 2022 count down.