Qatar celebrates greatest soccer achievement

REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Qatar celebrated its biggest soccer achievement after stunning Japan to win the Asian Cup on Friday, with impromptu street parades marking the country’s long-sought status in a sport that sits at the centre of its economic development.

Doha’s streets was gridlocked with cars immediately after the tournament’s final whistle blew, as Qataris draped in the country’s maroon and white flag slung themselves out of car windows or hopped on to rooftops, horns blaring in celebration.

A bitter political rift between Qatar and Asian Cup host United Arab Emirates meant Qataris were barred from attending the tournament, with their national team forced to play almost entirely without fans and, in the match against the UAE, with shoes lobbed at their players on the pitch.

“This is the first continental cup we’ve taken and it’s even despite all the pressure that was put on this team, which just proves that they are heroes,” said Qatari fan Ahmed al-Kaabi.

The tiny but wealthy Gulf state has spent billions of dollars to scale up its infrastructure in time to host the 2022 World Cup, the centrepiece of a plan to project itself on to the world stage and diversify its energy-based economy.

The Asian Cup title marks the most significant achievement it has made yet in the sport, which it has invested heavily in to be seen as a serious global player despite a tiny population of just over 300,000 nationals that has long hamstrung its ability to build a competitive team.

“This team is full of promising players that came out of Aspire Academy and we’re optimistic about them going into the next World Cup,” said 28-year-old Khalid al-Shamri, referring to the lavish sports academy Qatar launched in 2004 and recruited worldwide for to help cultivate the current national team.

Flags from Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, India and even Egypt — despite its anti-Qatar stance in the ongoing political rift — waved alongsideQatar’s across Doha after the match.

“This is an achievement not only for the Qatari people but for all Arab people and those in the Islamic world,” said 38-year-old Muhammad al-Kaabi.

REUTERS/Reporting by Eric Knecht, editing by Ed Osmond

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