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Why football’s richest nations have not qualified for the World Cup

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Ten teams have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup - including England who booked their place in Russia following a 1-0 win over Slovenia on Thursday. But two nations who have revolutionised the world’s game (for better or for worse) have both failed to qualify for the tournament.

The first is Qatar. Right now, the biggest story in football is still Neymar’s €222 million move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, a world record fee paid for with Qatari money.

The state-owned Qatar Sports Investments group have, since taking over PSG in 2011, spent approximately €905m on transfer fees. The same year as the PSG’s takeover, the Qatar Foundation paid €150m for a five-year deal to become the first-ever sponsor of the Barcelona shirt, arguably the world's most prestigious advertising space.

Two years before, Qatar was virtually unheard of as a footballing nation having never qualified for a previous World Cup. In 2010 everything changed. Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 tournament, amidst dubious circumstances. Despite a large-scale revelation of corruption within FIFA.

Qatar is a wealthy nation. It is the richest country in the world by GDP, ($103,900 per head). Earlier this year the Telegraph reported that Qatari investors own more property in London than the Mayor’s office and three times more than the Queen.

Most football fans and FIFA critics would argue that Qatar “bought” the right to host the World Cup but why, despite all the money being poured into Qatari football, did the Qatari national team finish bottom of their qualifying group?

The main answer is that Qatari money is being spent on club players from other nations (as in the case of Neymar,) rather than on Qatari football itself. Neymar’s fee of €222 million is just under 28 times more than the €8 million Beşiktaş paid Santos for attacking midfielder Rodrigo Tabata in 2009, the record fee paid for a Qatari player.

The second answer is that a country of just 300,000 citizens is simply too small to produce 11 players of World Cup quality, especially when so many Qataris move abroad after high school and when there remains a perception that following sport to the professional level is not a ‘proper’ career path.

To overcome these problems the Qatar FA has introduced very lax rules on national eligibility. In a 3-1 defeat against Syria this qualifying campaign, eight of the 11 starters were dual-nationality players. But this alone won’t avoid the humiliation of a poor showing at a home World Cup and seven defeats from their ten qualifying matches has left many pessimistic.

But Qatar does have a tiny crumb of comfort. Heavy investment into youth facilities has seen the nation claim the 2014 Asian Under-19s championship and qualify for the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Hopefully, these youngsters will peak in five years’ time when the Qatar World Cup will be just one month away. If they don’t, things could get embarrassing.

The team one place above Qatar in the qualifying standings is China.

President Xi Jinping is a big football fan. Supposedly a Manchester United supporter, China’s leader claimed boldly that he wanted the nation to be a "world football superpower" and win the World Cup by 2050. But, like Qatar, China has failed to qualify for the latest edition of the tournament.

Again, the problem lies with Chinese footballing spending going to non-Chinese players. Shanghai SIPG’s Oscar and Jiangsu Suning’s Alex Teixeira are not Chinese. The national team does not have its own superstar, no Chinese player is currently playing in Europe’s top five leagues.

Yes, the influx of high profile foreign stars is making the league more competitive. Paulinho, who many regarded to have peaked as a player when he signed for Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015 is now a starter for Barcelona.

But Paulinho remains an outlier, in truth the Chinese Super League does not threaten the Premier League in terms of quality and the AFC Champions League is still dominated by South Korean and Australian clubs.

At its current rate, there is no doubt the Chinese Super League will grow to be a dominant force. The rise in interest towards Chinese football has led to national broadcasters spending €1.075 million on the latest TV rights deal. (Up from the previous €7.5 million per year). In addition, attendances average 22,193 spectators per game, only 20 behind the Serie A and nearly 1000 more than the MLS and the Argentine Primera.

In addition, attendances average 22,193 spectators per game, only 20 behind the Serie A and nearly 1000 more than the MLS and the Argentine Primera.

The growth of the league is accompanied by the “Chinese football reform and development programme” released by the government in 2016 which, among other things, is said to increase football fields nation-wide from 11,000 to 70,000 by 2020 and to open 20,000 football schools.

It aims to produce one hundred thousand players, in context, all the teams in the 53 top European leagues have less than 20 thousand players combined.

China has clear population advantage over Qatar as well as experience at being successful in major sporting events. The nation has not been outside the top four of the Olympic medal table since 1992 and if the desire towards football remains, it could seriously become a major power within the sport.

However, all this takes time and right now China is at the very beginning of its journey. Unlike Qatar, China was competitive in their qualifying group, finishing only 3 points away from an automatic qualification place.

Losses away to Iran and Uzbekistan were China’s undoing but fans remain confident and progress has been made in each qualifying campaign since China’s last World Cup appearance in 2002.

China's model seems far more sustainable then Qatar’s who are seemingly only developing their national team as a way to avoid embarrassment at a home World Cup. It’s easy to imagine federal funding being cut immediately after the tournament's conclusion.

China, on the other hand, has made it clear that they want to win the competition. You won’t see either nation at the World Cup in 2018 but there’s a good chance that you’ll see them both in 2022.  

Image Credit - Wikipedia Commons

Main Image shows the Qatar National Football team. Image above top shows Neymar, whose PSG transfer fee was funded by Qatari money. Image above shows the Birds Nest Stadium in China.

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