Al Ain, 5 January 2019. The 17th edition of the AFC Asian Cup is taking Qatar’s football national team to the United Arab Emirates, where the team coached by Felix Sanchez and comprised of many graduates of Aspire Academy, is facing Lebanon, DPR Korea and Saudi Arabia in the group stage.
In their 10th appearance, the Qatari, having finished as quarter-finalists twice, are hoping to make a mark in the 2019 tournament. Qatar will kick off their campaign on January 9 against the Lebanese and according to coach Felix Sanchez the team is well prepared. “We respect our competitors, but we are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. All the teams offer a different challenge and we will be focusing on one game at a time.”
Sanchez knows most of his players very well, having worked with some of them in their days as student-athletes at Aspire Academy or later on in different Qatari youth national teams. Out of the 23 players in the squad, 14 are graduates of Aspire and they have been playing and training together for many years and as a group some of them managed to achieve outstanding results such as winning the AFC U19 Championship in 2014, representing their home country in the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand or competing in AFC U23 Championships.
For 22-year-old Aspire Academy graduate and current Al-Duhail midfielder Assim Madibo, who also gained experience abroad in Austria and Spain, the fact that the players know each other quite well is quite an advantage. “Many of the current national team players have been playing together for a long time. With some of them I went to the same academy, we spent time together in Europe, we were always together on and off the pitch. I consider some of my teammates also as my best friends, because we shared very special moments together. Winning in Myanmar at the AFC U19 Championship and qualifying for the U20 World Cup, for example, was a huge achievement for many of us back then and we all will give our best to create more unforgettable moments with Qatar’s national team.”
The next opportunity to do so is on January 9, when Qatar plays against Lebanon. Their other opponents in Group E are DPR Korea on January 13 and Saudi Arabia on January 17.
For the first time, the Asian Cup final tournament is contested by 24 teams, having been expanded from the 16-team format that was used from 2004 to 2015.Under this new format, the finalists will contest a group stage consisting of six groups of four teams, followed by a knockout stage of 16 teams. The 2019 AFC Asian Cup takes place from January 5 to February 1 in the UAE and the games are played in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Sharjah.
Australia are the defending champions going into the tournament, having won the previous competition in 2015. The winner of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will earn the right to participate in the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup.