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Why is Qatar in the 2021 Gold Cup? An explainer on the Asian side joining a North American competition

The 2022 World Cup hosts are not part of CONCACAF, so what are they doing here?

Grenada v Qatar: Group D - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup
Akram Afif of Qatar looks on during a group D match between Grenada and Qatar as part of 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup at BBVA Stadium on July 17, 2021 in Houston, Texas.
Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

The 2021 Gold Cup enters the quarterfinal stage Saturday with usual suspects Mexico and the United States looking to meet in the final. Honduras and Jamaica are also in the mix as two of the better North American sides in CONCACAF. However, there’s a surprising name in the bracket with Qatar, who is not part of the federation putting on the competition. So why is Qatar here?

For starters, having a team outside CONCACAF in the Gold Cup is nothing new. South Korea, Brazil, Peru and Colombia have all participated as guest nations in the competition. Teams from CONCACAF have also played in tournaments from other federations, with Mexico, USA and Honduras playing in Copa America.

The Asian Football Confederation and CONCACAF established a partnership in 2018 in an effort to support growth of the global game. Qatar has been invited to the 2021 and 2023 Gold Cups as part of that partnership.

This isn’t the only tournament Qatar has taken part in since being anointed host status for the 2022 World Cup, which is the biggest factor in seeing the Middle Eastern nation in these competitions. Qatar took part in the 2019 Copa America and is also operating as a member of Europe’s World Cup qualifying bracket, though its matches won’t count in the official tally for qualification.

After winning the 2019 Asian Cup, it became clear Qatar needed to further its team by playing against top competition from around the world. The World Cup isn’t going to feature a lot of countries Qatar usually plays international matches with; its group stage matches certainly won’t be with any Asian countries. That means Qatar had to get creative to play as many matches against as many different opponents as possible. Some sponsorship agreements here, some additional media exposure there and you get Qatar playing in CONCACAF, UEFA and CONMEBOL tournaments.

Since 2018, Qatar has played 17 matches against teams outside Asia. The quarterfinal match against El Salvador in this year’s Gold Cup will be its 18th. In the previous 10 years, Qatar played 29 matches from teams outside the AFC.

While there are surely some financial benefits for the soccer federations when Qatar takes part in their competitions, the reasoning for the participating country is very simple. It is going to be in a World Cup for the first time and it is going to be the host country. The product on the field must be up to the task.