FIFA president Joseph Blatter opens the envelope to reveal that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010
FIFA president Joseph Blatter opens the envelope to reveal that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010 © Fabrice Coffrini - AFP/File
FIFA president Joseph Blatter opens the envelope to reveal that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on December 2, 2010
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David Harding
Last updated: March 26, 2015

Qatar prepare for fresh World Cup challenge

Qatar and World Cups have been much in the news lately but it is the Gulf nation's football team that finally has the chance to make headlines from Thursday as they begin preparations for the 2018 tournament.

Qatar will play Algeria and Slovenia on March 26 and 30 in two relatively high-profile friendlies in Doha just three months before the tiny kingdom starts its bid for qualification from the Asian Football Confederation for Russia in three years' time.

It is the team's last chance to qualify for football's premier tournament ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup, where they automatically qualify as hosts.

Qualification for Russia could help lift Qatar's tarnished sporting reputation, which has suffered badly through claims of corruption and human rights abuses over its own tournament to be hosted in seven years' time.

But competing against such teams in the region as Australia, South Korea, Japan and Iran for four automatic places will not be an easy task for a Qatar side that earlier this year completed a disastrous Asian Cup, losing all three group matches before heading home.

"It's not an easy route for Qatar," said Ganesh Neelakantan, a senior sports reporter with Doha Stadium Plus, a weekly sports magazine in Qatar. "Australia, Japan, South Korea and Iran, they are strong teams."

Getting to World Cups from the region is made even more difficult as sides traditionally finishing just outside the top four in the final round are then pushed into a play-off with a top-ranking nation from elsewhere.

For the 2014 tournament, it was Jordan succumbing to Uruguay, losing 5-0 at home to the South Americans in the first leg.

Qatar are one of 40 teams in the second round of qualification -- along with 33 other nations they received a bye to this round -- anxiously waiting for April's draw to see which group they will play in.

A convoluted qualification system will see Qatar drawn into one of eight groups of five.

The group winners and four best runners-up head into the third round.

These 12 will then be placed into two groups of six, with the first two in each group heading to Russia.

FIFA is yet to decide whether a lifeline will then be thrown to the teams finishing third in these final groups.

- Optimism dashed -

At the beginning of the year, Qatar may have been a strong outside bet for Russia.

Confidence was high after winning the Gulf Cup in 2014, Qatar's first trophy abroad, where they beat neighbours and often World Cup qualifiers Saudi Arabia 2-1 in the final.

But the Asian Cup -- where they were thrashed 4-1 by neighbours UAE, beaten 2-1 by Bahrain and 1-0 by Iran -- have dampened expectations.

French-born coach Djamel Belmadi, who played for Marseille and Southampton among others, has loaded his squad with players from two of the top sides of the Qatar Stars League, Michael Laudrup-managed Lekhwiya and Al Sadd.

A number of the players in the national squad who played in the Asian Cup are originally from outside Qatar.

Goalkeeper Qasem Burhan was born in Senegal and winger Tresor Kangambu originates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There were also players born in France, Sudan and Ghana in the squad which travelled to the Asian Cup.

But officials are at pains not to repeat what happened during the recent world handball championships held in Qatar, where a large number of the players were conspicuously from outside the country.

Many eyebrows were raised by the international make-up of the handball side and even FIFA secretary general Sepp Blatter called it an "absurdity", which would not be allowed in football.

Belmadi has drafted in several local players, including skipper Meshal Abdullah, from Doha.

A large number of Qataris should feature in the friendlies and qualification matches and they will be history-makers should they ensure passage to Russia.

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