They went so close to booking their first appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ finals in France in 1998...and Qatar will not let their chances of representing Asia at the global event slip away so easily this time around.

The tiny Gulf state, whose expatriate workforce outnumbers its indigenous population, demonstrated the progress they had made in recent years in June's third stage of Asian qualifying for South Africa 2010. Taking seven points from four matches in perhaps the most difficult group of all, they stormed into the final round. The results, including their 1-0 win over Iraq in the decisive final match which ensured their progression, saw coach Jorge Fossati's side climb three places to 80th in July's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

The upward momentum continued in August, despite Qatar's inactivity: the devaluation of some poor results in recent years has pushed Qatar up to 71st place, ahead of the likes of South Africa, Costa Rica and Iraq.

Old lessons learned
Qatar came within three points of FIFA World Cup nirvana when they played host to Saudi Arabia at Doha on 12 November 1997. A win would have sent the Qataris to France, but it was the Sons of the Desert who came away with a 1-0 win to progress to France 1998 at the home side's expense.

The lessons have clearly been learned. Qatar, who had been known for choking on big occasions, emerged a different side under Uruguayan coach Fossati. Despite a disappointing 3-0 loss to Australia in the opening game in February, they rallied in the second game in March to claim a shock 2-0 win over Asian champions Iraq.

They then chalked up four points from back-to-back games against China in June, and although they again fell short against the Socceroos in the penultimate match, Fossati's charges kept their cool to overcome a rampant Iraq in the last match to secure their place in the final round.

The unexpected progression delighted Fossati, who attributed their triumph to the team's growing mental strength. "The team was disciplined, and we managed to cope with the pressure very well," he told the media after the win over Iraq. "In this all-important match, we had only one chance, but we didn't let it slip."

The road ahead
Qatar's next task is a daunting one. They face Asian top seeds Australia, FIFA World Cup regulars Japan, Gulf neighbours Bahrain, and Uzbekistan in Group A of the final qualifying round. Despite the strength of the opposition, Fossati, who took over the Qatar reins in early 2007, has fixed his sights firmly on one of the section's two automatic qualifying spots.

"We are aiming to snatch all 12 points from our four home matches, and then we must try to carve out results in the away games," the former Uruguay coach said.

Despite these lofty ambitions, however, the team's less-than-convincing performances in the buildup to their opening qualifying fixture against Uzbekistan on 6 September showed that there is plenty of work still to do. Fossati's men lost a friendly 2-1 to Spanish club Espanyol on 3 August, and after their narrow win over Palestine in the WAFF championship, they suffered two embarrassing defeats at the hands of Iran (6-1) and Jordan (3-0).

An unruffled Fossati downplayed the significance of the results. "Our purpose is to assess the fitness level of the players and to try out as many players as possible," he explained. "And in a final qualifying stage like this, we should fear no one."