If the football world thought it could no longer be surprised by Qatar, then it reckoned without the Middle Eastern state’s participation in next year’s Copa America.
The 2022 World Cup hosts will head to Brazil to line up against the likes of the home country, Argentina and current Copa America cup holders Chile in the world’s oldest international continental football competition.
At first glance, the idea of the Gulf state — ranked 101st in the world — playing a regional cup competition 11,500 miles from home against footballing royalty makes no sense.
Viewed though through the murky and looking glass world of international football, Qatar’s involvement begins to make some sort of sense.
For the tournament itself, Qatar is literally helping make up the numbers.
The Copa America is contested by the 10 country member states of CONMEBOL, the South American football confederation.
CONMEBOL has since 1993 invited countries outside the region to take part and push numbers to, usually, 12.
Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States are among teams previously invited.
Next year another Asian Football Confederation side, Japan, who played in the 1999 Copa America, will join Qatar in the tournament initially split into three groups of four.
Tim Vickery, a South American-based football journalist, says Qatar may not have been CONMEBOL’s first choice.
“The big plan for a number of years is to make it 16 teams,” he tells AFP. “They were very keen on getting European teams, including Spain and Portugal.”
Ending up with Qatar instead of the current European champions has not played well in some sections of the South America media, adds Vickery, who complain it makes the competition less competitive.
CONMEBOL, however, may have other considerations.
It is trying to broaden the global appeal of the Copa America as it has with its other major tournament, the Libertadores Cup, the continent’s version of Europe’s Champions League.
Earlier this year, the federation decided to ditch the traditional two-legged final for a one-off match from 2019 which, CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez, said would make it “a world-class spectacle”.
With super wealthy Qatar’s involvement in the next Copa America there has been speculation — and it must be stressed that it is strictly nothing more than that — the Gulf country has paid to be involved.
“CONMEBOL is desperate for money,” says Vickery.
Qatar’s participation could also broaden the tournament’s broadcast appeal.
Qatar’s BeIN Sports has broadcast previous Copa Americas as well as World Cup qualifiers from the region.
For Qatar, the attraction appears different.
On the footballing side, Qatar desperately needs competitive matches before 2022.
After failing to qualify for Russia, it is desperate to develop a team capable of competing on the world stage at home in four years’ time.
National coach Felix Sanchez told AFP recently that playing in the Copa America would be great “for the development of the players”.
Japan’s outing in 1999 was similar, coming three years before it co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea.
But for Qatar there is more at stake in playing Copa America, argues James Dorsey, a specialist in Middle East football and politics and a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“It projects Qatar,” he says. “It puts them out there, I don’t think this is to do with cash.
“The politics of it and the reputational benefits are what drives it.”
Qatar’s involvement will help other far away countries “empathise” with Doha, says Dorsey, which finds itself isolated and at the centre of a year-long bitter political dispute with neighbouring former allies.
The invitation to play in Brazil comes as Qatar’s commercial and sporting interests have taken a leap forward with the announcement that state-owned Qatar Airways will become shirt sponsors for Argentinian champions Boca Juniors from next season.
Until now, Qatar’s biggest involvement with South American football was hosting a friendly between Argentina and Brazil in November 2010, two weeks before it was chosen to host the World Cup.
Added to the intrigue of Qatar’s Copa America involvement is one more sub-plot.
As soon as Qatar accepted the invitation to play, Dominguez flew to Doha to meet Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to discuss CONMEBOL’s proposal to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams.
That will be discussed by FIFA ahead of next month’s World Cup but has the backing of president Gianni Infantino and remains tantalisingly on the table.