BY MARK MAY | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR
EDINBURG — The hot weather does not faze them but they are not taking chances with spicy Mexican food.
The Qatari National Team is getting a taste of Rio Grande Valley culture for a few days as they train for an appearance in the upcoming Copa America. The Middle Eastern team, which will host the 2022 World Cup, is using the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros’ training grounds at H-E-B Park until Sunday when they fly out to Brazil and the Copa.
“The team (Toros), they provided everything for us,” Qatar National Team Media Officer Ali Al Salat said. “I think it’s (H-E-B Park) one of the best (facilities). We’ve traveled all over the world. This is one of the best I’ve seen.”
Striker Ali Afif found the conditions agreeable. Even the hot Valley sun is something he is used to coming from a desert nation that juts into the Persian Gulf.
“It’s (weather) the same, nothing different,” he said. “We are happy to be in the USA. Most of our players, I think, it is their first time they are here. It’s a really nice atmosphere, nice people. I hope when we go to Brazil, we are going to remember America.”
At 4,400 square miles, the diminutive emirate is slightly smaller than the Rio Grande Valley.
Meanwhile, the team is racking up the frequent flyer miles this month. The Qataris jetted 8,350 miles to McAllen and will trek another 5,000 miles to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they will play in the world-famous Maracanã Stadium in their Copa America opener against Paraguay June 17.
Al Salat said they chose the southern United States to train, in part, because of its relative proximity to South America. The team arrived Thursday for what amounts to a mini-camp.
“We are looking to have these players in shape,” Al Salat said. “Their mind all set for the Copa America competition. The atmosphere and everything we want is here (in Texas).”
Afif said he is looking forward to the 12-team tournament which pits the best national teams in South America against one another. Qatar and Japan are participating as invited teams.
“It’s a new experience for us,” Afif said. “It will not be easy of course. We are focusing on football and we want to do our best. We have to think big.”
As hosts of the next World Cup, Qatar will not have to play in any qualifying matches. Therefore, gaining experience in major tournaments such as this one is crucial to their development. Currently, Qatar ranks 55th in FIFA’s world rankings.
“This is good for us, for the players and for Qatar to get experience and to be prepared for the World Cup in 2022,” Al Salat said. “To be honest, the pressure (to win in 2022) is not there. We are planning to have a good competition and do our best in the World Cup that we are hosting.”
The next World Cup will consist of 32 teams after FIFA decided against increasing the tournament to 48 teams earlier this week. In a twist, the tournament will be scheduled in the cooler winter months (November-December, 2022) to avoid the summer’s intense heat.
Afif feels the pride of the world’s biggest tournament coming to his nation.
“It means a lot of course,” Afif said. “We still have time to talk about it. For the moment, let’s just focus on the Copa America.”
Qatar has enjoyed significant success in continental tournaments. They won the Asian Cup in February after eclipsing Japan, 3-1, in the final.
“It’s a different style of play (in South America) and we hope we can do something (positive),” Striker Abdulaziz Al Ansari said. “We will give our all in the games and we will see what happens.”
In Brazil, Qatar will compete in Group B along with Paraguay, Colombia and powerhouse Argentina.
Although used to the heat, the Qataris expect to shy away from peppery Mexican dishes during their brief stay in the Tex-Mex region as it could inhibit their training.
“Maybe for us (team) officials but for the players, nah,” Al Salat said with a laugh. “Some tacos maybe.”