Long-term vision is key for Qatar
The countdown to the 2022 World Cup has started and while the choice of Qatar wasn't universally acclaimed, most can agree that what needs to be ready will be ready when the time comes. Philippe Troussier told me last week: "You need money and organisation to stage the World Cup and Qatar has both. It also has a vision." That vision may be focused on the long-term off the pitch but it needs to be 20:20 when it comes to 2022 on the green stuff. With a history that can only be described as short-sighted, the future is far from clear though.
Troussier knows that better than most as he was relieved of his duties by the Qatar FA after one game of the 2004 Asian Cup. Being fired by the suits in Doha is something else he has in common with Bruno Metsu, besides being French and a convert to Islam, although Metsu at least lasted until after the tournament finished before getting his marching orders. Just last week, QFA president Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed al Thani said: "We thank him for his efforts. But we feel this is a time to move on so we mutually agreed to end the contract."
It hadn't been a bad tournament for the hosts. Qatar had only ever made it past the group stage once before, back in 2000, and expectations weren't high. Despite a bad start and a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan in the opening game, they bounced back to defeat China by the same scoreline and then eased into the last eight with a 3-0 whipping of Kuwait. A place in the knockout stages was always the target, with anything more a bonus.
But further progression was prevented by eventual champions Japan; it was Metsu's misfortune to meet a slick Samurai Blue. The West Asians caused a number of problems for the Japanese defence - especially in the first half, before tiring in the second. Even then, 2-1 up against ten men with less than a third of the match remaining was a winning position and it was only due to the intervention of Shinji Kagawa that Alberto Zaccheroni's men triumphed 3-2.
At the time, it seemed to be satisfactory. "We wanted to show Asia and the world that we have a good team and we succeeded in that," Al Thani said after the match. "I am happy with the performance of the entire team and the coach. They gave their best." But the tune changed, as did the coach.
There won't be a great deal of sympathy for the man himself and he knows that if you live by the sword, then you die by it. Metsu has a reputation in the region for jumping ship when it suits him, though given the way West Asian clubs and federations hire and fire, it is hard to be too judgemental. He made his name on the global stage by taking Senegal to the last eight of the 2002 World Cup but left to take over UAE's Al Ain. Metsu guided the club to the local title and then the 2003 Asian Champions League crown. In 2005 he was winning the Double in Qatar with Al Gharrafa before taking over UAE's national team in 2006 to become, according to rumours, the highest-paid coach in the Middle East.
Despite winning the Gulf Cup early in 2007, the 57-year-old resigned in 2008 after losing the first two World Cup qualifiers in the final round of qualification - not through any sense of responsibility for the end of UAE's South African dream, but because he had been offered the Qatar job.
Metsu is wily enough to know that his departure was inevitable. Qatar is not a Saudi Arabia when it comes to hiring and firing national team coaches but it is still a nation that embraces the top-down football model with everything focused on the national team. The Frenchman may have done a decent job but when Sepp Blatter opened the envelope on December 2 in Zurich, his days were numbered. He was never going to be a big enough name to satisfy the spotlight that was going to fall on Qatar, both on and off the pitch.
On the surface, the fascinating challenge that Qatar now has is to develop a national team that can compete in 2022, but the deeper issue is how to use the tournament to develop a football scene into one that can raise the country as a whole to the next level. In a region that has proven time and time again to be overly focused on short-term results, here is an opportunity for real change, a chance to break away from past paradigms of well-paid coaches on short-term contracts, and even shorter-term thinking.
Qatar should look to South Korea and Japan. The example of Korea is an interesting one as far as the national team aspect goes as it shows the benefits of keeping faith with a good coach and working to a plan. Guus Hiddink learnt more from successive 5-0 defeats with the Taeguk Warriors on tour in Europe in the summer of 2001 than he did from six months of home friendlies. The media wasn't happy but the Korean FA stuck firm and the results were seen less than a year later.
Losing the fear of losing is one loss that Qatar should welcome. Too often in the Middle East, a couple of bad results and the coach is gone, leaving little scope for the main man to focus on anything else. In the space of the next decade there is ample time for poor results and numerous coaching changes but the two needn't go hand-in-hand. Qatar needs a fresh face with new ideas and, importantly, who is backed by a federation that has the confidence and foresight to allow for experimentation and even a thrashing or two.
The example of Japan is apt as a country that used the World Cup to help establish a vibrant football scene. Fans in the Land of the Rising Sun are now reaping the rewards of a long-term vision of football that was set up almost two decades ago. Japan's decision to bid for the 2002 World Cup was made in conjunction with the foundation of the now thriving J-League and a resolve to invest in and develop grassroots football.
The beginnings of evolution are starting to be seen even in Saudi Arabia and UAE. Qatar has been slower but the creation of a professional league is a step in the right direction and 2022 can be a real boost if the energy is channeled in the right way. Qatar can take a patient and long-term view and it doesn't necessarily mean naturalising talented imports.
Qatar can learn from the examples set by Asia's two leading football nations and it also has the luxury of being able to invest a huge amount of money and, more importantly, a good deal of time. It remains to be seen how those resources are used.