On Friday, the Qatari national soccer team did what it had never done before, beating Japan 3-1 in the final of the Asian Cup to claim its first continental trophy ever.
Qatar steam-rolled the entire competition, going undefeated in group play with a goal difference of +10 before nipping by perennial contenders Iraq and South Korea in the first two rounds of the knockout stage. Then they put four goals on the hosts, the United Arab Emirates, leading to UAE fans pelting the Qataris with shoes and bottles of soda. No matter, because Qatar then defeated top continental power Japan in the final, thanks to not one but two incredible goals.
The first came 12 minutes in, from Sudan-born Qatari striker Almoez Ali; watch him control the ball with some ridiculous touches before firing off a no-look overhead kick into the corner of the Japanese goal (sure, the goalie could have done better, but you can never really expect this goal):
The second goal came 15 minutes later, and was a more traditional screamer from Doha native Abdulaziz Hatem:
Just like that, Qatar locked up its first major tournament win in the first tune-up event on the road to the ever-controversial 2022 World Cup. Despite becoming the first nation since 1934 (literally the second World Cup ever) to host a World Cup without having qualified for a previous edition, Qatar has built itself quite a powerhouse of a team in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, that’s another conversation—albeit one of less human importance than, say, the worker abuses or corruption that landed Qatar the World Cup in the first place—that FIFA will not want to have in the run-up to 2022.
Qatar’s soccer team has received plenty of help from the government, not just financially but also in naturalizing a handful of players born elsewhere. That’s not necessarily a rare practice; players from all over change allegiances all the time, as Diego Costa did when he swapped from his native Brazil to Spain in 2013. But the scale of what Qatar is trying to do, in the face of complaints about its non-existent soccer history, makes even the Asian Cup win feel cheapened: five of the team’s 23 players, including the goalscorer Ali, were born outside of Qatar. That Qatar has become successful in a short of time seems to be driving its rivals nuts; after getting spanked in the semis of the Asian Cup, the UAE petitioned to have Qatar disqualified because it supposedly fielded two ineligible players; FIFA handed off the complaint to the Asian Football Confederation, who will likely do absolutely nothing about it.
Of course, most of the sour grapes over the way Qatar constructed its team is tied to people’s anger over the government’s involvement in both getting the World Cup and in its human rights abuses. But the Qatari roster does represent the demographics of the country’s population more accurately than one might assume. The country has roughly 2.4 million foreigners in the country, 88.4 percent of the total population, and they have more in common with the naturalized players on the team than they do Qatar’s ruling class.
And it’s not like soccer powers around Europe stick to players born in their respective countries; look at France’s World Cup-winning side and you’ll see plenty of immigrant stories not dissimilar from, say, Almoez’s family emigrating to Qatar when he was a child. The criticism of Qatar’s team-building practices feels too attached to the country’s politics as a whole (as well as the rapid pace at which it is happening), ignoring the fact that sports are, in theory, supposed to inspire and unit communities.
When the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010, citizens flooded the streets of the capital to celebrate. The streets of Doha were filled again on Friday with celebration, a reminder that sports can be as cathartic for the people as they are lucrative for those in power:
That celebration and communal spirit has value. For one day, Doha was the capital of the soccer world, and it’s okay to feel good about it for now; the next time the soccer world focuses on Qatar, it will be for far more contentious reasons.