AL AIN, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - Qatar will be out to prove they are worthy of a World Cup debut in 2022 when they open their Asian Cup campaign on Wednesday.
Qatar, ranked 93 in the world, play Lebanon, ranked 81, in their opening group match of the 24-team tournament in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.
Captain Hassan al-Haydos told reporters on Tuesday the team aims to reach at least the final-16 knockout stages, though head coach Feliz Sanchez warned that “all the groups are really strong.”
The Asian Cup is likely to be the last major test for Qatar before their first World Cup in 2022, for which they automatically qualify as the host nation - the first time since 1934 that the host has never previously played in the tournament.
“The World Cup is still four years (away). This (Asian Cup) is going to be a tournament for us to get more experience to try and to compete in a high level against high level teams,” Sanchez said.
Qatar, whose best ever Asian Cup performance was in 2000 and 2011 when the team reached the quarter-finals, also face North Korea, ranked 109 in the world, and Saudi Arabia, ranked 69, in the group stage.
“I am sure this group of players are able to compete against all teams in Asia, and now it is the time to show we have the qualities and the commitment,” Sanchez said of his side.
Qatar’s participation in the tournament takes place amid strained political ties, and it is not even clear if its fans will be able to attend its games.
UAE cut ties with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism, which Doha denies.
The Local Organising Committee told Reuters fans need to check their entry requirements with UAE diplomatic missions. The UAE ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the ban.
Saudi Arabia, who Qatar face in their final group match also cut ties, as did Bahrain which is in a different group.
Sanchez, who won the Under-19 Asian Cup with Qatar in 2014, would not be drawn on how this might impact the team.
“Our focus is only on the games,” he said.
Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Hugh Lawson