During the mid-1700s, as the Al Saud clan operated tirelessly in establishing the first Saudi state and working rigorously on expanding their presence felt across the region, little were they aware of a similar yet powerful tribe making noise approximately 500kms to the East.
Descendants of the Banu Tamim tribe in Saudi Arabia who track their lineage to Abraham through his son Ismael, the House of Thani was gradually etching its name in to the history books as the head of the clan Thani bin Mohammad moved and settled in Qatar in the 1740s. Though Bin Mohammed was extremely successful in building alliances with tribes across modern day Qatar, it was his ability to create foreign coalition that revealed the extent of this emerging leadership.
During his time, Bin Mohammed was able to effectively liaise with Faisal bin Turki, the ruler of Saudi Arabia at the time, building bridges and spreading his influence across the region. Simultaneously, he signed separate treaties, first with East India Company officer and Political Resident, Sir Lewis Pelly and then with the Ottomans for protection against any external attacks to the nation.
However, relations between the House of Thani and the Turks faltered when Bin Mohammed’s son – Jassim bin Mohammed took to the throne in 1878. Having being betrayed by the Ottomans on the political front, he realized the need for Qatar’s sovereignty leading to disdaining the Ottomans as well as the imperialist British Empire.
Despite attempts from the Ottoman Empire demanding loyalty from Jassim bin Mohammed, his unwavering steadfastness towards the Turks resulted in a military confrontation in 1893 wherein the oppressor was defeated which largely is credited to the undivided allegiance of several Qatari tribes. This battle (known as the battle of Al Wajbah) spiraled the nation onto the regional map, showcasing Qatar’s struggle for independence and freedom against oppression. This mentality – the mentality to strive trickled down through generations to be a defining factor of present day Qatar.
And evidently, this character is visible in the various ventures the Gas rich nation is involved in which ranges from financials to automotive and hospitality to sports. The intention was clear: to diversify away from what currently is holding the country financially stronger – Oil and Gas.
“Infrastructure spending, a rising population and accelerating non-hydrocarbon growth makes Qatar better placed than other GCC countries to weather oil price changes. Financial services, transport, communications, hospitality and real estate stand to benefit as the economy grows.” – Sandeep Nanda, Investment advisor at Qatar Investment Fund.
Qatar’s involvement in football has been making headlines in recent times, mostly surrounding its treatment of ethnic migrant workers in the construction industry and the subsequent accusations of how the nation had won the right to host the most prestigious football event in 2022. But credit should be given to the desire of the leadership to endeavor in positioning itself in this competitive world of football. If they manage to win the hearts of football fans across the world, half of that job is done, as it may seem.
Qatar was only exposed to football in the mid-1900s, with the game being introduced by foreign oil workers who were stationed in the country. A fact, which echoes across the GCC. Twelve years later, three years post independence, the Federation was established catering to the interest of the locals in the sport, which eventually led towards the body joining the Asian Football Confederation as well as the official organizing body – FIFA. Inclusion in FIFA paved the way to a league system, which bearing in mind Qatar’s insignificant population during the decade, relied on foreign players primarily from Indian subcontinent and neighboring countries. Compared to the complex transfer regulations of present times, players who asked for a transfer would have pay 10 rupees and draft up a letter of resignation. During its infancy one positive to take was when Qatari football witnessed Pele visit the country for an exhibition match with Brazilian side Santos in 1973, three years after winning the 1970 World Cup.
The domestic league system, with clubs being formed between 1950s and 2000s, had consistently observed operational changes since 1970s for instance, during the 84/85 season, the league had to cancel relegation and promotion of sides to and from the second division so players in top division could concentrate on the national team as they prepared for the 1986 World Cup qualifiers. In 1994, to boost the attendance levels in the respective stadiums, the FA had to introduce penalty shoot-outs in matches that would end in a tie.
However, it wasn’t until 2003, when the Q-league (Qatar’s domestic league) made its presence felt in the global football market. This was the beginning of it all. The league, backed by a few generous donors, allocated an amount of approximately $10,000,000 to each club in the top division, in order to lure an aging star to their club – that household name that could pluck the thousands of fanatics from the comfort of their homes to their local stadia. As a result, legends from top European sides decided to end their career in Qatar, of course, backed by a sound paycheck. Few of the names include the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Stefan Effenberg, Marcel Desailly, Juninho Pernambucano, Ali Karimi, Fernando Hierro and Ali Daei. Three-time African footballer of the year – Abedi Ayew Pele was the only exception to this list as Al Sadd provided the platform for him to move on to Europe after the 83/84 season. Not only did this initiative increase fan level percentages by a few points, their presence also allowed for the Qatari talent to groom their skills on the pitch.
At the international level, Qatar has recorded impressive results, sort of at least, taking into account neighbors with historically strong football background like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Persian foes Iran – all of who compete against each other in the west zone of Asia’s AFC. More specifically, Qatar has achieved tremendous success at the youth level. A surprising Qatar squad made it to the finals of the 1981 FIFA World Youth Championship in Australia winning against powerhouses like Brazil and England before going out to West Germany in the Finals. This squad of 1981 is still admired to this day. Three years later, the team qualified for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, United States. Although, they were humbled in their first attempt at the Olympics, the nation carried the pride of all Arabs in the United States.
To build on that success, the Qatari leadership established the world famous Aspire Academy in 2006 based in Doha to help nurture and develop the football skills of both Qatari and foreign children. A notable gesture considering that majority of the football clubs across the GCC usually do not allow expat children to join a club at a younger age, with the exception of a select few. Qatar has been an outlier in that situation, recognizing talent before nationality, which in today’s time can be observed in the academy’s unbending interest in hand selecting talented kids to train at the Academy from the four corners of the world. The intention was clear – the more Qatari youth get the opportunity to play with their peers who possess a different style of play, the more likely they could adapt and perform better. This would eventually serve as the backbone of the national team that we see today.
Since then, Qatar’s focus on youth had been visible as investments poured in to train the younger generation. This belief clearly paid off as Qatar won the gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. To top it all, the country continues to excel at the youth level having appeared six times at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
At the senior level, Qatar had faced several criticisms in the past surrounding its policy to naturalize talented foreigners who otherwise were not able to secure a spot in their own national teams. Qatar and Bahrain were the first few from the region to start the trend, as they realized an unfortunate need in order to be competitive at the global stage. In 2004, Qatar’s FA had offered Werder Bremen’s Brazilian striker Aílton, who had never visited the country, a sum of $1 million to suit up in maroon colors, which he rejected. This trend, witnessed across quite a few nations, led to FIFA introducing an emergency legislation banning naturalizations from taking place if there was no connection between the player and their prospective country.
Since then, FIFA had loosened the rules stating that a player must live in their host country for five years before they can represent the national team which allowed players that have participated in domestic football with clubs in Qatar like Uruguayan Sebastian Soria, Senegalese Abdulla Koni and Brazilian Emerson Sheik represent the ‘Annabi’. Unfortunately, the latter was released from further national team duties after his involvement with the U-20 squad of Brazil was revealed.
The nation strived in establishing a foundation, as it learned from the risks it had taken and the mistakes it had committed, yet it was clear that Qatar was on the right path to achieve global recognition amid their attempt to claim a sense of ownership in football. Similar, to what it had achieved across other verticals.
Football was not going to be any different. That sense of ownership and pride finally came on December 2nd, 2010 when Qatar was announced as the hosts of the 2022 World Cup. And then it began.