Football in Qatar
Football in Qatar
Initially the Qatari crowd was quiet compared to the Thais sitting opposite. Then a clapping began, swelling up. Then, with the first of three Qatar goals, the crowd the biggest I have ever seen in tiny Qatar surged to their feet, yelling their support.
We were at the quarterfinals of the Asian Games football, in Al Gharaffa stadium. Qatar went on to beat Iran who had won their previous 15 Asian Games football matches in the semifinals, becoming the first host nation to reach the finals in twenty years, and topped it off by beating Iraq 1-0 in the finals in front of an 18,000 strong crowd. This was not just a fluke, either just two years before the Qatari national teamhad become champions in the Gulf Cup.
Qatari men are football mad, and their national team is one of the mostly highly ranked by FIFA in the Gulf. Yet, until now, little has been written in English about football in this tiny peninsula. We set out to try and collect what information we could.
The first football club in Qatar was set up when Bedouin nomads were still roaming the desert, in Dukhan in 1948. In 1950 the first Doha club, "Al-Ahli", was established. The Qatar Football Association was founded in 1960 and in 1970 became associated with FIFA, the world governing body.
The Qatar National Soccer Team
Despite the size of their country, the Qatar football team are highly rated and have a pretty impressive list of results: They are ranked in the top 100 in FIFA's World Rankings, and their dream now is to enter the World Cup for the first time. They are coached by a Bosnian at present, Dzemaludin Musovic who replaced Philippe Troussier in 2004, and the team plays in all white shirts and shorts.
Khalfan Ibrahim has become the first Qatari to win the Asian Football Confederation player of the year awardin 2007. At just 18 years old, he's also the youngest player ever to win the award. He's probably one of the reasons Qatar has got as far as they have in the Asian Games, too, scoring two goals in his international debut match against Bangladesh, and a further two against Thailand in the semi-finals of the Asian Games.
Sebastian Quintana played some superb football during the 2006 Asian Games. As you might have guessed from his name, he wasn't actually born in Qatar, but was brought to Qatar from Uruguay in September 2004 by French coach Bruno Metsu. (He had to look Qatar up on the map when he was recruited). Quintana started playing for Al Gharaffa, scoring 14 goals in their first season and helping them to the top of the Q-league, before moving to Qatar Sport club, where he scored 19 goals in 20 Games and was voted Q-league player of the year. After two years of residence he was allowed to play in the National Team, and scored 4 goals during the Asian Games. Qatar claims he is only 18, but this seems highly unlikely.
Leagues and Clubs
There are 20 clubs in the country. 10 play in the top league (known as the Q-league), ten in a lower league. Each of the ten teams in the higher league will play a total of 18 games. The bottom two teams of the top league are relegated, the highest two of the second-tier league promoted. The 10 clubs presently in the Qatari top flight are Al Sadd, Qatar Sports Club, Al Arabi, Al Rayyan, Al Ahli, Al Shamal, Umm Salal, Al Gharrafa, Al Khor, Al Wakra.
Qatar's football teams have large and modern stadiums with a capacity of up to 50,000 (Khalifa Stadium). Given the population of the country (approximately 900,000 including a majority expatriate population), these stadiums are never going to be filled for a normal football match.
Qatar's Football Supporters
Time and time again outsiders have commented that Qataris do not support their teams or country in any numbers. It has been reported that Qatar will be paying Vietnamese supporters in Vietnam to cheer on the team in the 2007 Asian Cup. One writer noted that even the biggest games would only draw in a crowd of 10,000. Now remember there are only about 180,000 Qataris, so roughly 90,000 males, many of whom will be either too young (there is a huge birth rate) or old and infirm to attend, and you realise that 10,000 is a massive number.
A UK equivalent, taking into account the relative size of the populations, would be about three million. Using the same maths, even a more normal crowd of a thousand or two for a club match is huge. (Some Qatar residents who make up the majority of the population but are not citizens have become fans, but the majority of the supporters at the games are Qatari).
Anyone who has been present at the games can not doubt the enthusiasm of the football supporters. The wild Arabic football chants and drumming sound closer to Africa than to Europe. Happily, supporters have managed to avoid the violence that has dogged European or South American football. Instead, after winning a game they prefer to hop in their Landcruisers and drive up and down the Corniche, leaning out of their windows, honking their horns and letting off firecrackers.
Best Qatari Club
Al Sadd, 11 times Q-league winners and only former winners of the continental cup, are probably the best team, although the supporters of their close rivals Al Arabi might disagreee. Al Sadd is a street in Doha, Qatar's capital city, which gives you some idea of the scale of things here. However, their president is Sheikh Tamin Bin Hamad Al Thani, who is also the heir to the throne.
Oil money is pouring into football here. In 2003 each football team in Qatar was given an initial ten million dollars to go out and employ some big foreign names. One of the football coaches told me that there is a former Tottenham player in his mid-40s receiving nearly two million dollars a year. The most well-known foreign player here is Gabriel Batistuta, an Argentinian striker, but he has been joined this season by Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha (formally of Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League), Cameroonian Bill Tchato and Australian Tony Popovic. Other players to have appeared in Qatar in the twilight of their careers include Romario, Marcel Desailly, Christophe Dugarry, Pep Guardiola, Frank Leboeuf, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Stefan Effenberg, Ali Benarbia, Claudio Caniggia, Abedi Pele, Alain Goma, Youssef Chippo, Fernando Hierro, Sonny Anderson, Mario Basler, Taribo West and Sabri Lamouchi.
Qatar does not just want to employ big names. They are also aiming to develop home grown talent, and have launched a sports academy called Aspire to do so. Every year the academy aims to take on 70 youngsters in Qatar to develop their sporting talent; not a huge amount, considering the athletic skills of every child in the country is tested. The head football coach is Michael Browne former Charlton Academy Chief. (See www.aspire.qa/).
Football is also incredibly popular in schools one UK teacher in a secondary school told me he was astonished at how fast the football played in the schools was. Qatar is yet to produce a world-class star but that may change.
Qatar is likely to stage the 2011 Asian Cup which will further increase interest in the 'beautiful game'. Qatar is also keen to hold a future world cup - a test of whether they can do this will be when they host a friendly between Brazil and England in November 2010. (See Football's Elite Descends on Doha as England Take On the Boys From Brazil for our writer's assessment of their chance.)
Qatar Football Association