Qatar are within touching distance of the fourth and final round of Asian qualifiers for the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, requiring just a single point from their February 29 encounter with Iran in Tehran to secure the second qualifying slot from Group E.
One point needed
With Iran already assured of their place in the last round, it remains to be seen whether Bahrain or Qatar have what it takes to claim the runners-up spot and the second fourth round berth. The odds favour Qatar, who have nine points to Bahrain’s six and need only a draw to close their rivals out and go through. Be that as it may, Ibrahim Khalfan is taking nothing for granted.
“It’s a massive game for us,” he insisted. “There’s no guaranteeing that we’ll qualify. Everything comes down to how we perform on the night. We know how tough Iran can be at home so we have be ready to give it everything and not waste our chances. We’re determined to do just that and we’re looking forward to proving we can do the job and go through to the fourth round.”
The two sides have something of a history in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Iran have taken the spoils in three of their previous encounters versus a lone victory for Qatar, while this year’s set of qualifiers has produced a draw in their only game to date. Add to that Iran’s desire to assert their dominance over the group and enter the next round on a high and you have all the ingredients of a classic encounter.
Qatar have steadily improved their performances over the course of the third round, following draws against Iran and Bahrain with two important wins over Indonesia. Another draw with Bahrain earned them the runner’s-up slot and a solid shot at reaching the next round.
Former Asian Player of the Year Khalfan is quick to concur with this assessment: “We’ve had an excellent run of games in the group. First of all, we’re unbeaten, which always gives you a lot of self-confidence going into a game. After drawing twice we needed two wins against Indonesia to regain lost ground and we showed we had the courage to pull it off.”
“The first Indonesia game was in Jakarta,” he explained. “The weather conditions made it very difficult but we proved that we could shrug them off and win regardless. On the return leg we made sure of it: four goals to nil.”
Bahrain were quite a different proposition. “That second Bahrain game was a full-on derby,” he explained, “and I think a draw was a good result. It got us to where we are today. Our destiny is in our own hands now. The players are happy, basically, and we’re hoping to finish the job with a win.”
Qatar’s third round performances have yielded two wins and three draws, with eight goals scored versus just three conceded. Ibrahim Khalfan’s contribution of three goals makes him the side’s top scorer.
Big ambitions and a lot of confidence
In the last 12 years the small Gulf kingdom has reached the final round of the FIFA World Cup Asian Zone qualifiers on three occasions, but it was their campaign for France 1998 that stirs profoundly mixed emotions. Qatar had come back into contention after looking unlikely to qualify, but in their must-win final game, an experienced Saudi Arabia proved too strong and the dream was deferred.
Fans have high hopes that their side can do it this time, and given the excellent quality of Qatari football in recent times, their confidence seems far from unreasonable.
For Khalfan, it is a simple equation: “First we have to get past Iran. If we go through then it’s down to who wants it most. With a berth at the World Cup for grabs, it’s won’t be about form or odds any longer. We love a challenge and we’re steeling ourselves for the biggest of all. Our preparations for the final round will be excellent, then we’ll show everybody what we can do.”
The final few months of 2011 saw Qatari football in the ascendant, with local giants Al Sadd winning Asia’s premier tournament, the AFC Champions League, then proving it was no fluke by taking third place at the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup.
Khalfan was a vital component of the club’s amazing run, and naturally enough, he is delighted. “Al Sadd’s achievements have been superb that’s for sure,” he said. “Winning the continental title and then playing so well at the Club World Cup showed that Qatari football can compete with the best. Now we have to make sure we benefit from these successes. The Al Sadd players are flying and we have to pass that feeling on to our team-mates in the national side.”
“I think everyone is proud of us,” he added. “Performances like that are a matter of national pride. Winning the Champions League is the kind of thing we have been dreaming about for years.”
Ready for more
In 2006, Khalfan was crowned Asia’s best player, an honour that gave him the confidence he needed to pile up the titles for Al Sadd and dazzle for Qatar. This recognition, taken together with his many on-field achievements, has had a profound effect on the player, and is something he is quick to acknowledge.
“I’m so thankful for everything I’ve achieved in the last few years,” he said with a smile. “Winning the AFC Champions League with Al Sadd followed by third place at the Club World Cup really restored my morale after coming back from injury. But that aside, I’m hoping to do much more with the national side in these World Cup qualifiers. If the World Cup isn’t an incentive, I don’t know what is, and I will do everything I can and more to take Qatar there.”