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Photo Credit: Al Sadd FC

When Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez was unveiled as an Al-Sadd player a few months ago, he was stepping into the unknown. All his life, the midfield genius had played for Barcelona. Catalan-born and bred, Xavi will have felt a tinge of awkwardness pulling on the jersey of another club. And yet, he claims it is a challenge he has happily accepted. We will take his word for that.

For the time being, let’s put aside the question of what is going on inside Xavi’s head. Instead, let’s tackle the question that was buzzing around at the press conference. How is Xavi going to change Al-Sadd and Qatari football in general? After all, that is the message that has come along with the deal. Xavi himself confirmed it saying, “I want to bring all of my experience from Barcelona to Qatar, and I see that there are already teams here who like to play our style of football. I know that Al Sadd and the coach here play the style which we have played with Barcelona and with the Spanish national team over the past decade, so I come with the knowledge that I will be able to contribute.”

Contribution – that’s a lot of responsibility. Xavi is expected to be the harbinger of great new things for Qatari football in the road leading up to 2022 and there’s no doubting that it entails an enormous amount of responsibility. For one thing, Qatari football is not in the best of spirits at the moment. After a couple of exciting but fleeting phases following the successful World Cup bid, the general mood now is one of disillusionment and uncertainty.

The Qatar national team has a new coach – Jose Daniel Carreño – the third in two years. That decision could prove to be critical for Qatari hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Constant change at the helm is never good for any team. In any case, the players have no option but to go with it. Carreno’s first competitive game was a near-disaster, with his strikers coming up short against a defiant Maldives side. Lacklustre and dull, Qatar escaped with a late goal that deflected in off a defender. Fans had enough reason to be disappointed. Criticism over player selection and naturalisation policies has reigned since the game.

Around the same time, the Qatar under-20 team, the much-hyped group of Aspire Academy graduates faltered and capitulated at the World Cup in New Zealand, scoring just one goal and losing all three of their matches. It doesn’t help much when the country’s great big hope itself exudes hopelessness. I can be accused of seeing the glass half-empty but I think there is a genuine case for it.

Compounding all worries is the corruption scandal and the ensuing upheavals at FIFA which threatens to take the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar. While authorities in Qatar will repeat that the World Cup is not in danger, it is a hard task convincing people of it, especially in the face of a massive media onslaught.

So can Xavi lift spirits and start something special? He has to. Qatar needs a player of his calibre and stature to help them turn the tide now. There are many ways in which Xavi can do that. Firstly, there obviously needs to be a drastic improvement in the footballing standards, starting from Al-Sadd. QSL clubs have not been impressing outside Qatari shores and that is a cause for concern. Xavi’s coming has the potential to trigger an effect similar to that of Juninho’s time at Al-Gharafa.

The Brazilian free-kick maestro led The Cheetahs to multiple titles during his two years at the club, pioneering a brand of football that delighted fans and pundits alike. Not only did they dominate football in Qatar effortlessly but they also made waves in Asia, missing out on the semi-finals by a whisker in 2010. Al-Sadd is now looking to repeat that or go even further. The challenge for The Wolves is not just to conquer Qatar and Asia, a difficult task in itself, but also to win by playing well. And let’s face it: despite Xavi’s age, this is not beyond him, especially as this is a region where the game is markedly less intense. This is an opportunity for him to write amazing new stories outside Europe as well, by sparking a footballing revival in a country that desperately needs it.

According to Al-Sadd, Xavi had signed for two years with an option to extend for an additional season. After he ends his playing days, he will concentrate his time with the youth via Qatar’s famed Aspire Academy. It is this step which will decide Xavi’s and Qatari football’s long term future. All Aspire graduates so far have developed under the tutelage of world-class coaches who come with a CV of success. However, to get tips first-hand from recently retired players, who also have their fair share of multiple championships to their names, is pretty cool too. Raul did that during his stay in Qatar, working in an advisory role in the national youth setup. When the under-19s went on to win the Asian title, Raul’s role was not forgotten. When Xavi comes in to do his bit, it is expected that he will have a bigger role than Raul. Xavi has said that his work in Aspire could be his stepping stone to earning his coaching badges and entering the world of management – possibly through Barca, a la Guardiola.

In addition to tangible effects on the pitch, there is also hope that Xavi can help bring back crowds to the stadiums. In the 7 years since its rebranding, the QSL has definitely grown in many ways but there still is quite a lot of room for improvement when it comes to attendances. Unlike some of its neighbours, Qatar cannot boast of a sizeable football-loving population that rushes to the stands every matchday. This is where Xavi comes in. If his reception in Qatar is anything to go by, it seems very likely that Al-Sadd will see a lot more people passing the turnstiles next season. Agreed, Xavi is no marketing executive with a magic wand; he cannot solve the real problems behind the lack of fans in the QSL. However, if at least Al-Sadd manages to get a lot of support behind its team next season because of Xavi, then there is good reason to believe that other clubs will follow suit. Al-Sadd will have set an example; bringing in a big name and promoting the club around him as the focal point could be a great step towards building a loyal fanbase.

Overall, everything may sound a bit too revolutionary. Xavi may seem like the reluctant man in charge of leading the impossible revolution. But as a follower of Qatari football, I’m willing to cling to any hope and everything I’ve mentioned above is a representation of all the different dreams I have of football in this country changing for the better. We will know if it does in two years’ time. Till then, let’s keep hoping for the best insha’Allah.

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