Philip Barker

In a year from now, all eyes will be on Qatar for the FIFA World Cup. Never before has the final tournament begun as late in the calendar year.

It will also be the first time since the very early days of the competition that the host nation will make their first appearance in the finals at the same time.

In 1934, Italy’s World Cup debut was on home soil. They went on to win the entire competition.

Few expect Qatar to emulate such a feat, but 40 years ago they did have a "Golden Generation" of young players who reached the final of the 1981 World Youth Championship held in Australia.

Such a devastating impact was a remarkable achievement for Qatar, which had only become an independent state in 1971.

The youth tournament itself was a child of the 1070s. Introduced at the insistence of new FIFA President João Havelange, it was first held in 1977. Many felt it came came of age in 1979 when Argentina won, inspired by a Buenos Aires teenager destined to become one of the very greatest, Diego Armando Maradona.

In 1981 the Argentinian team included Jorge Burrachaga, a future World Cup-winning team mate of "El Diego", but went no further than the group stage after losing to Australia.

Qatar’s success story can be traced back to 1980. Federation chiefs had weighed up the choice of coach. They had considered an English coach to take charge of the side but instead opted for a Brazilian.

The man they chose was Evaristo de Macedo.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, he had played for Flamengo, Barcelona and Real Madrid. As a coach, his assignments had included spells in charge of Fluminense and Vasco da Gama.

There were were only 600 registered players in the country out of a population of 220,000, and only 12 domestic teams when the national side travelled to Bangladesh to try and qualify for Australia in December 1980.

Sunday marks a year until the Qatar 2022 World Cup ©Getty Images
Sunday marks a year until the Qatar 2022 World Cup ©Getty Images

The competition was held in Bangladesh but Qatar finished top with maximum points after beating Oman, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. 

Two months later came the final qualification phase.

The first match did not go well for Qatar. They trailed South Korea by two goals at half time and eventually lost 4-1.

They recovered immediately from the setback by beating the host nation Thailand. A draw with Bangladesh and a slender victory over Japan was enough to secure second place in the group and a ticket to Australia.

To widen his squad’s experience, Evaristo arranged a 10-match tour of Brazil.

Meanwhile in Australia, the FIFA World Youth Tournament was billed as the "the richest array of Soccer talent to come to these shores".

The Australian Soccer Federation was said to have spent AUD 1.2 million (£650,000/$870,0000/€770,000) on the competition, with sponsorship from Coca-Cola responsible for the cost of getting the teams there.

The tournament had the trappings of the new commercial age including mascot Kickaburra. Yet veteran Australian sportswriter Andrew Dettre observed: "The full time organising committee consists of one person with all other types of assistance drawn in on a voluntary basis."

A few days before the tournament, a freak gale rendered the floodlights at the Sydney Cricket Ground unsafe and some of the earlier matches were transferred to arenas with inferior floodlighting.

FIFA’s own report bemoaned a clash with a test event for the following year’s Commonwealth Games in Brisbane and a clash with a tennis tournament which "was given greater priority on television".

The competition was staged in October, which brought its own problems for some European teams.

Poland’s team was shorn of some of their better players, who were needed for the full national team as the World Cup qualifying campaign came to an end.

England, coached by John Cartwright, then considered as one of the more forward-thinking British coaches, had similar problems. "Clubs are most reluctant to release their senior youth players for a possible three weeks," Cartwright complained.

"Most other nations look at youth football as a preparation for senior international football. I am not so sure that we do this here in England."

Qatar had arrived as 100-to-1 outsiders. It was reported that each player would receive a bonus of £150,000 ($200,000/€180,000) were they to win the cup but this was swiftly denied by the management team.

They were drawn against Poland, the United States and Uruguay for a group to be played in Brisbane.

Most outside Doha knew little about the Qataris. The FIFA technical report even observed that, "Many people in Australia shamefully confessed they did not know the country existed."

They were soon to be enlightened as Qatar, wearing maroon shirts, took the tournament by storm.

They opened with a 1-0 win over Poland. The goal came when an attempted Polish clearance struck Badr Bilal and flew into the net.

Against the US, Qatar drew 1-1. Ethiopian referee Tesfaye Gebreyesus ruled that a header by Bilal for the equaliser had crossed the line, though the Americans were unhappy about the decision.

In the final match Qatar lost 1-0 to Uruguay but their place in the last eight was secure.

By a twist of fate, they faced Brazil, the homeland of coach Evaristo. FIFA’s report spoke of "splendid football played in magnificent spirit."

The Qataris, white-shirted this time, led early on after Khalid Salman Al-Muhannadi beat the offside trap. After Brazil equalised, he scored again.

Brazil had levelled at 2-2 but with only three minutes to go, Salman held his nerve to score from the penalty spot after a handball. His hat-trick sent Qatar through.

While many may not have heard of Qatar is 1981, the country and its record on human rights have come into sharp focus in recent years as the World Cup nears ©Getty Images
While many may not have heard of Qatar is 1981, the country and its record on human rights have come into sharp focus in recent years as the World Cup nears ©Getty Images

"I am very happy, if you play 10 times against Brazil, you lose seven or eight times" admitted Evaristo later, "this was very good luck for us".

"Qatar caused one surprise after another, thanks to the wise counsel of Brazilian Evaristo", was the verdict of World Soccer magazine.

In the semi-final against England, a spectacular effort from Bilal gave Qatar the opening goal.

"It had all the hallmarks of Pele, indicating the Brazilian connection of Evaristo", wrote an admiring Sydney Morning Herald reporter Brian Curran.

A second goal came shortly after the hour mark from Ali Al Sadah and although England closed the deficit with Mike Small, Qatar held out for the victory using the offside trap effectively. England were caught out on no fewer than 20 occasions.

The progress of the match was followed avidly back home.

"They were very happy, there wasn’t a person in the street," Bilal, now a highly respected TV analyst, said at the time.

"My mother spoke on the telephone, she said when the game starts, you can see no-one in the cafe, no one in the streets."

A pitch invasion by hooligans rather spoiled the moment. The Qataris needed a police escort to their team bus. FIFA President Havelange was left "disappointed and annoyed by the disturbances". There had earlier been crowd trouble at England’s match against Argentina.

In Melbourne, West Germany beat Romania 1-0 after extra time in the other semi-final.

In the days before the final, down came the rain.

"The weather was shocking. The Qataris have about 10cm of rain a year and when they saw the heavy waterlogged surface of the Sydney Cricket Ground, their hearts must have sunk into the mud", Dettre wrote in World Soccer.

"The weather was a great advantage to our players," West Germany’s coach Dietrich Weise admitted.

The Sydney Morning Herald concluded: "They [West Germany] were too disciplined, too fast, too strong. strong, too well organised, too adept in the wet conditions." The Germans won 4-0 to lift the trophy for the first time.

FIFA President Havelange, general secretary Sepp Blatter and other dignitaries huddled under umbrellas to make the presentations.

Qatar were an "astonishing team" Havelange said. In his year-end message he insisted Qatar’s success was a "concrete example of the efforts being made by FIFA towards the development of football in the third world".

The team were sped home in a jet sent specially by the Emir.

The captain of the aircraft was Australian Murray Douglas who reported that in neighbouring Bahrain, "there were tremendous celebrations with so much shouting and honking of horns".

The performance remains a high-water mark for Qatari football, though Evaristo coached them to the final stages of the 1984 and 1992 Olympics and the national team are currently Asian champions.

Evaristo is revered as a national treasure and returned to Qatar in 2018 to visit the Amir Cup final.

"In over 10 years with the national team we were able to do things which no one imagined we would be able to do," Evaristo said.

“But we did it, and that is important. I always have Qatar in my memory, I try to find out what is happening here, how my friends are, how the country is. I am very happy to see that Doha is more beautiful every day."