Felix Sanchez led Qatar to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup title
The coach played a key role in Qatari football’s recent achievements
Discusses participation in Copa America and preparations for 2022 FIFA World Cup
Football coaching's main practitioners tend to be known as either club coaches, national team coaches, or age-category coaches. However, Spanish coach Felix Sanchez is not so easily pigeon-holed, having followed a somewhat different path. He first came to Qatar in 2006 to work as a trainer at Aspire Academy, with the task of identifying and developing young talent.
It was only years later that Sanchez began his journey with Qatar’s national teams. First, he led the U-19s to the 2014 Asian title and consequently to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2015. He then came very close to qualification for the 2016 Olympics before being asked to take charge of the senior team. Tasked with securing the regional title for the first time in the country’s history, he duly delivered by guiding Al-Annabi to glory at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
A few weeks ago, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) renewed Sanchez' contract until the end of the 2022 FIFA World Cup™, which Qatar will host. This proves that his employers are convinced the Spaniard is able to develop the team further in preparation for the global tournament.
Soon after the end of the domestic season, the Qatar squad gathered for an overseas training camp as part of their attempt to make history at the 2019 Copa America in Brazil. Before embarking on the trip, Sanchez found time for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: After a wonderful year with the Asian Cup, Qatar are now preparing for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Do you think participating in the Copa America will be a good start?
Felix Sanchez: You have to always focus on your overriding goal. The state of Qatar is heading towards a historic event: hosting the 2022 World Cup. We need to make sure the squad are in top form and up to the nation's expectations. This means that we'll not be participating just for its own sake, but that we're determined to leave our mark on World Cup history, especially since this will be Qatar's first World Cup.
Our participation in the 2019 Copa America can be seen as a significant step in our journey towards the World Cup, a journey that we started some time ago. In this official tournament, we'll play against experienced teams that are certainly of a higher calibre than what we saw at the Asian tournament. Our group includes Argentina, whose abilities are well known, and Colombia, who are exceptionally good performers, whether at World Cups or the Copa America. Paraguay also boast a pedigreed history. So, I believe these matches will serve as an important staging post for me and the players. They'll tell us where we currently stand and what we need to do in the next phase.
What are you hoping to gain from this participation, and what are Al-Annabi's chances in the competition?
Since our squad has many young players, we look forward to gaining as much experience as possible in this high-profile tournament. Specifically, that means experiencing the Latin American style of play and taking part in a major tournament in front of many fans. It will also allow us to address important details on and off the pitch. I want the team to perform in a proper and honourable way and demonstrate that they’ve progressed. That’s not just measured in accumulating points and progressing to the next round, but if that happens, it would of course be great.
Before the official tournament, you play a friendly against Brazil, affording you a rare opportunity to go up against the continent's two heavyweights: Brazil under Neymar's leadership and Argentina with its star man Messi.
They're certainly two great stars of unique ability. Going up against them will be of great benefit to our players. As for the psychological part, I believe we have professional players who know well what's required of them in such confrontations. But in general, I see these two games as a great opportunity to face two teams and all their players, not just two stars. That’s where the benefit is in these kinds of games.
The QFA recently announced the renewal of your contract until the end of the 2022 World Cup. Do you see this as a reward for your efforts with Qatari football in the past years?
Well, I'd like to thank the QFA and its President Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who supported us at all times. He believed in my abilities and gave me this opportunity with the national team after my previous experiences with the youth team and the Olympic team. The renewal of the contract after the Asian Cup is proof that we did a good job and competed competently at continental level. I hope we'll continue our successful journey during the next phase.
Having started your Qatar journey with the under-age teams, would you say that a coach needs to climb the career ladder step by step? Also have you gained much experience from this journey, considering the different competitions in which you’ve participated?
Absolutely. Just like players, coaches develop gradually. No coach began at the top. They all started at the bottom and worked hard to develop their abilities and status. As for the competitions, I believe that every game you play, regardless of what tournament or stage it is at, adds to your experience. I’ve coached players in all age groups, and at every stage I acquired new and diverse knowledge.
With three-and-a-half years to go before the World Cup, do you already have a plan for this period?
I believe the QFA realises the importance of the next stage. Yes, three years remain, but we're sure that we can play all the matches that we ask for. We needed strong and varied opposition before the 2019 Asian Cup, which we got, allowing us the opportunity to prepare better. We played against Switzerland, Iceland and Ecuador, and now we'll play tough matches at the Copa America and before that against Brazil. We're sure the remaining programme will be optimal both in terms of the choice of friendly games and the training camps. And don't forget that we’ll still take part in two Asian qualifying tournaments: that of the 2022 World Cup, although we’ve qualified as hosts, and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, where we’ll be defending our title.
Returning to the 2019 Asian Cup. What you achieved was remarkable on many levels. Can you put it into words and did you really expect to win the title?
It was certainly an achievement with a different flavour. It was a tough competition. We faced many challenges along the way and the team gave every drop of sweat to win it. Hours after we were crowned, we returned to Doha. When the plane doors opened and we saw the wonderful welcome by the leadership and the people, we knew how much our achievement meant to them. The joy of the Qatari people was the true title we won. From the technical standpoint, we knew that such competitions are played and won out on the pitch, and not on paper or based on past records. Therefore, we decided to concentrate only on the football to the exclusion of all else. I believe it was the right approach. We focused on each individual game, and when it ended, we immediately moved on to the next one. That gave us mental strength.
When did you start to believe that winning the title was possible? Was there a particular game or moment?
We played seven games in all but beating Saudi Arabia in our final group game to top our section was the first key moment to making us believe we could do it. The game against Iraq in the last 16 was the first of our knockout fixtures. The stadium was full of Iraqi fans and the game was tense, but we managed to prevail. After intelligently overcoming Korea Republic in the next round thanks to the players' commitment, the semi-final was another significant confrontation. When you play against the host team, you're under a lot of pressure. But anyone who watched it could see that we played one of our finest games. We controlled the play, created opportunities and scored four goals. Our presence in the final could've been enough in itself, but this generation of players was full of enthusiasm despite the long journey and the physical toll. It was a historic game, where we played with well-thought-out tactics to take advantage of our opponents' weaknesses and restrict their power. Other than the period after their goal in the second half, I believe our performance was perfect, and we finally succeeded and won the title.
You coached many of the current players when they started at Aspire Academy and subsequently worked with a lot of them as they moved through the age categories. In terms of developing Qatari football, do you think the challenge set by Aspire to create future stars has started to bear fruit?
Yes, obviously it has. We started with a small team that soon grew in terms of its capabilities. Our young players then won the U-19 Asian title in 2014, and the team reached the semi-final last year. At both tournaments, we qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. We also came fourth at Asia's U-23 Cup but we were not lucky enough to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. For 2020, we have a team that can compete.
Thanks to the development of players for the national team, we managed to form a great squad this year and won the Asian Cup for the first time. We also provided the tournament’s top scorer and best player in Almoez Ali and the best goalkeeper in Saad Al Sheeb. So, we can say that the system that was founded years ago has begun to pay dividends, but I stress that this methodology will continue.
Many Qataris played professional football abroad returning to the domestic league. Do you think they are now ready to play professionally in some of Europe’s top leagues?
Yes. At the beginning they were working to build experience. Now I believe that many of them are qualified to play professional football in Europe. I hope that the players will perform as expected at the Copa America and grab the attention of European clubs. If this happens, everyone will benefit.