(MENAFN - The Peninsula) The Peninsula
Rio De Janeiro: Qatar squad yesterday reached Rio de Janeiro where they will play their first match at Copa America later this week.
Based in the coastal town of Porta Belo for the last two weeks, Qatar has been training and practicing at full speed for their debut in the world's oldest football tournament.
On Sunday, Qatar - coached by Felix Sanchez - face Paraguay in their opening match at the famous Maracana Stadium. Qatar then faces Columbia on June 20 followed by a clash against former World Cup champions Argentina on June 23 in Porto Alegre. Star striker Lionel Messi is expected to lead Argentina.
Since arriving in Brazil more than two weeks ago, Qatar has played an international friendly against Brazil and another match against a club side to prepare for the three-week event.
Asian champions Qatar is one of the invited teams to feature in the tournament. Former Asian Cup champions Japan are also taking part in this year's event. Japan has played in one previous Copa America edition, appearing at the 1999 tournament held in Paraguay.
Last week, coach Sanchez announced a 23-member squad that will be captained by Al Sadd star Hassan Al Haydos.
In an interview earlier this week, Sanchez underlined Qatar's growing reputation, saying the youngsters have made things happen for the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts.
'Aspire Academy has played a major role in the development of the young players. With the presence of international coaches, the Qatari clubs have got talented Aspire Academy graduates in recent times, Sanchez said.
'Clearly the goal is to have a good national team in the World Cup 2022, the Spaniard added. 'The important thing is that the players will gain experience at Copa America. They are accustomed to being strong and competitive. They are successful too, but our plan is to give the players the maximum opportunities to prepare for the World Cup in 2022, Sanchez said.
Sanchez guided Qatar to Asian Cup glory in Jan-Feb this year with an unbeaten seven-match streak. Young striker Almoez Ali, an Aspire Academy graduate, produced nine goals in Qatar's seven matches at the Asian Cup.
'It was a big challenge. In the Asian Cup, our goal was to compete well. We had expected from the start to play well and it was tough to be ahead of others. But thanks to the hard work of the players, we exceed expectations very quickly, he said.
'I have supervised most of the young players from their early days. I know all the details about them, especially the ones, play in the Qatar Stars League. A majority of them are close to me and this is good for me, Sanchez said. Ali has already racked up 19 goals in just 38 international appearances.
Sanchez said in the interview that he has seen a consistent evolution of youth football in Qatar.
'There is a lot of progress since 2006 because of the culture of long-term planning, Sanchez said.
'In addition to the Aspire Academy that accelerated this development of young football players, Qatar's understanding of the value of how you train and adapt to new ideas to become a well-organised team was crucial. The (positive) results are at the heart of everything and it determines whether you are good or bad side.
'The players were committed and believed they could win the Asian Cup. We played as we wanted, a steady style of play, and this makes you more proud of what you are doing, he said.
Meanwhile, key player Abdulaziz Hatem has urged his teammates to exhibit a fighting show during the tournament.
Hatem said after yesterday's training: 'The Qatari team enters the tournament as the champions of Asia, and we hope that our team is the best representative of this despite the strength and difficulty of the group.
On their way to Brazil, Qatar also had a training camp in Texas, the United States.
Qatar featured in an international friendly against Brazil on June 5 followed by a 2-1 win over a club four days later.
Hatem said that the match played by Qatar against Brazil was good learning experience.
'Our team presented a good fighting game in their friendly against a strong and top-class team in the world, he noted.
'Without a doubt, the loss against Brazil does not diminish our hopes as we could have done better than the 2-0 score suggests, he added.