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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Qatar football

AL Arabi and AL Sadd fight it out on the pitch

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 wasn’t just a fluke, either – just two years before they had become champions in the Gulf Cup.

Qatari men are football mad, and their national team is the most highly ranked 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 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 Qatar football team

Despite the size of their country, the Qatar football team are highly rated and have a pretty impressive list of results: see here: fifa.com. They are now ranked 58th 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, Dzemaludin Musovic, and the team plays in all white.

Star players

Khalfan Ibrahim has become the first Qatari to win the Asian Football Confederation player of the year award. 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 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). He 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 a higher 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.

Football supporters Time and timeAl Sadd fans show their support for their time by throwing up white paper again outsiders have commented that Qataris do not support their teams or country in any numbers. 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 English 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. Well, what would you do if you had no alcohol or night clubs? (Qataris, unlike residents, are not allowed to drink alcohol and are often prevented from entering nightclubs).

Best club
Al Sadd, Qatar football11 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.

Big money

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.

Developing talent

Qatar doesn’t 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.

Further information:

Qatar football association
Contact details: 7th Floor, QNOC Building
West Bay P.O. Box 5333
DOHA Tel:+974/494 4411
Fax:+974/494 4414
football [at] qatarolympics.org

Website: http://www.qfa.com.qa/ (currently under construction)