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DOHA (Reuters) - World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar beat South Korea 3-2 on Tuesday to keep alive their slim hopes of reaching next year's finals in Russia as they bid to avoid becoming the first host nation to have never before qualified for the tournament.
The victory also gave a temporary reprieve to fans in a country in crisis mode, isolated by its Gulf neighbours severing diplomatic, trade and transport ties.
Players wearing Qatar's maroon shorts looked relieved at the final whistle to have secured a thrilling victory on a hot night in Doha's Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, only their second win in eight qualifying matches for Russia 2018.
Doha will stage the 2022 World Cup, but its winning bid in 2010 has caused controversy amid accusations of corruption during the bidding process and the mistreatment of migrant workers building Qatar's stadiums and facilities.
Qatar has always denied the allegations.
Fans wore t-shirts supporting Emir Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, with the same images of the ruler's face that people have plastered on cars in expressions of nationalism in the face of the Saudi-led isolation of its smaller neighbour.
"It was a good match, and great for the nation," one Qatari supporter said.
The Qataris have seven points and cannot finish in the top two spots in Group A that guarantee an automatic berth in Russia. Leaders Iran qualified for the finals on Monday, while South Korea are second on 13 points ahead of Uzbekistan with 12.
Qatar still have a faint chance of finishing in third spot to secure a place in a series of playoffs but pundits say that is unlikely and have criticised the team's form.
"Qatar desperately wanted to qualify for a World Cup before they hosted it. Qatar wanted to prove they were capable. But it has been very demoralising, hopes have evaporated," said Ravi Kumar, an editor at Qatari sports magazine Doha Stadium Plus.
"Eyebrows will be raised" if they do not qualify, he said. "Almost 60 percent of Qatar's sports budget was spent on football."
The gas-rich nation has hired top coaches, including current Qatar manager Jorge Fossati, a Uruguayan, and has brought aboard naturalised players, including Rodrigo Tabata of Brazil, who make up about half of their squad.
Critics contrast Qatar's plight with the success of Iceland, another small country without a rich football history who reached the quarter finals of the 2016 European Championship.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh work in Qatar, including on its World Cup project, in conditions human rights groups have deplored.
The Gulf Arab kingdom denies abusing workers and says it is implementing labour reforms.
Qatar became the first Middle Eastern or Muslim country to win hosting rights for the World Cup beating Australia, Japan, the United States and Tuesday's visitors South Korea.
If Qatar does not win its next matches against a weak China and Syria, it will become the first host nation not to have qualified for a World Cup before hosting one.
Italy hosted the 1934 World Cup having not participated in the inaugural tournament in 1930, but there was no qualification for that event.
Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Ken Ferris