Doha, Qatar: Qatar pulled off an unprecedented triumph at the AFC Asian Cup 2019. Felix Sanchez's side were more than a match for the traditional big guns in the United Arab Emirates, and they got their reward by lifting the trophy for the first time.
That remarkable success did not come out of the blue. For the last few years, Qatari football officials have overseen an in-depth effort to raise standards, most notably through the Aspire Academy, which has already produced several players for the country's international teams – including the squad now in Poland for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Qatar kick off their bid against Nigeria today, and their youngsters do not have to look far for inspiration. They will have their senior colleagues at the forefront of their minds, as left-back Ahmed Al Minhali explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
"Thanks to the achievements of our first team, we're more convinced than ever that nothing is impossible in football," he said. "Nobody was betting on them, but they won the trophy by putting in great performances in every match. They never wilted under the pressure, which has obviously been more intense since our country was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup."
Al Minhali and Co have already caught the eye themselves, booking their ticket to Poland through the AFC U-19 Championship in 2018. There, Qatar topped their group thanks to wins over Indonesia and Chinese Taipei, having lost their opener to United Arab Emirates. The best was yet to come as they then defeated Thailand 7-3 after extra-time to secure their U-20 World Cup spot.
"We worked hard to get to Poland," said Al Minhali. "Over the last two years, we've increased our number of training camps, getting together two or three times a month. But all our efforts have paid off, and that's the most important thing.
"Our qualification came down to the match against Thailand, and the pressure on us was something a lot of the players had never experienced. We started well and went in 2-0 up at half-time, but our opponents were able to come back and take the lead in the second half. Luckily for us, we managed to equalise before the end and take the game into extra-time. Our superior fitness levels took care of the rest."
The company of two-time finalists Nigeria, Ukraine and USA means Qatar won’t have it easy in Group D.
"We did two training camps in Slovakia and France, each lasting ten days each, and we were all together for 25 days overall,” Alminhali explained. “Every national team here in Poland has to be taken seriously – there are no more small teams, everyone has genuine ambitions.
“Nigeria have played in finals and even won trophies. Ukraine are serious customers. All our opponents have their own style of play. We will try to capitalise upon our opponents’ weak points to achieve our goals.”