Fantasy league football

Qatar is no longer an explanation for someone gobbing on the pitch: the Premiership has a rival as a home for retiring players, as Daniel Anderson-Ford reports

“Our football league features some of the world’s greatest players, many of them working with some of Europe’s finest coaches, and we hope to com­pete with the best at club and national level.”

Incredibly, these are the words of Manfred Hoener, technical director of the Qatar Foot­ball Association. More incredible is that what he says has some sub­stance to it. As the opening weekend of the Q-League season drew to a close, the team-sheets read like a who’s who of Nineties football. Provincial sides such as Al-Rayyan, Al-Arabi and Al-Sadd – teams still con­sidered by FIFA to be semi-professional – had fielded luminaries such as Fernando Hierro, Gabriel Batistuta and Josep Guardiola alongside the usual col­lection of bakers, doctors and lawyers.

This is no mirage. A flood of retirement-age foot­ballers from top leagues have been lured to the tiny Persian Gulf coun­try, succumbing to the sultan’s delights – a massive pension fund and what one local commentator called “the life of kings in the desert”.

Batigol and pals are keeping discerning company. League favourites Al-Sadd have signed Coventry’s Youssef Chippo, Frank Leboeuf from Marseille and Manchester City’s tormented mid­fielder Ali Bernabia (or “Ali son of Arabia”, as he is known to local fans). Al-Rayyan have paired former Real Madrid centre-back Hierro with German midfielder Mario Basler; Al Arabi, the league’s oldest club, are able to utilise the services of Steffen Effenberg with Batistuta and even the little-known Al-Ahli Sports Club have signed former Barcelona captain Josep Guardiola.

Beautiful as Qatar is, the major driving force behind this transfer frenzy is dollars – petrodollars. “What is ruling the world these days?” Hoener asked me, re­flecting on the first day of the new season. “Money is rul­ing the world. Look at your Mr Abram­ovich.”

Money is certainly running Qatari sport. The Q-League has ten teams and each has been handed $10 million (£5.9m) to invest in players by the country’s sports-mad ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The country has the world’s third largest reserves of nat­ural gas and the highest per capita income, so money has been no object in the quest to sign the very best “pen­sion players”. Hierro will earn a reported £1.78m for one sea­son, while the Batistuta will pocket a whop­ping £4.8m for two seasons. Both contracts come with the obligatory furnished villas and chauffeur-driven limousines. More stars are sure to follow and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, will be looking on jealously at recent events. This may seem little more than the posturing of a few insanely rich Sheikhs; football, as “our” Mr Abramovich has evinced, is the modern day Rolex. There are more power­ful forces at work behind the scenes, however.

Since seizing power in 1995 when his father was abroad, the ultra-liberal Sheikh Ham­ad has initiated socio-economic policies as controversial as they are benevolent. The country’s mod­ernism leaves it at odds with its more traditional neighbours; it is the first Middle Eastern Islamic country to outline a blueprint for a democratically elected government, one in which women are free to vote and hold office, and joins the UAE as the only Arab countries to encourage freedom of speech and the press. From this policy was born Al Jazeera, the country’s in­cendiary news channel, which has courted controversy through its broadcast of the “bin Laden tapes” but has also generated the kind of attention and status the coun­try craves.

Indeed Qatar’s maverick voice has launched a new sports channel complete with exclusive rights to the Q-League. The expected response from an Arab TV audience, brought up on a diet of European football, should help pay back the still outstanding start-up loan.

After 30 years of investment in infrastructure and industry, Qatar has quietly built a strong reputation on the world stage. In 2001 the country hosted the World Trade Organisation conference, recently strengthened ties with the US by allowing Iraq invasion forces to operate from its Al-Udeid air base and is considered by world leaders to be a haven of neutrality.

This powerhouse approach has been extended to sport. When the coun­try gained independence from Bri­tain in 1971, Sheikh Hamad’s father, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, himself a progressive leader, saw sport as a way to “im­­prove the health of the nation” and spur on development. Billions were invested into facilities and grass roots and three decades on the country boasts an impressive sporting calendar – from PGA golf and ATP tennis to athletics. Just as it does politically, Qatar now sits at sport’s top table. Sports supremo Mohammed bin Haman is head of the Asian Football Confederation and is also a FIFA executive. Most recently, the country’s facilities were deemed good enough to host the 2006 Asian Games.

“The influx is just the cream on the cake,” explains Haidor Abdullhaq, Al Jazeera’s head of sport. “Qatar has spent money on sport in the past, just as it is spending now. We are a small nation, but through sports, particularly foot­ball, we can build a strong profile. We have seen what investment has done for football in the US and Japan.”

The world sniggered when the New York Cosmos signed Pelé in 1975, but the US now rank ninth in world football. Japan (Gary Lineker) and China (Paul Gascoigne) have followed this example and Qatar now aims to be the top destination for ageing professionals. In the short term, Qatar’s foot­ball ad­ministrators hope the stars’ arrival will drive up attendances and aid the transition to a fully professional league. Hoener explains: “Last season, players would show up late for training or matches, but this season they are punctual and even look at things like diet and lifestyle. They are behaving like professionals and this is a big step.”

Al-Rayyan general secretary Ahmed al-Sulaiti adds: “Working with these players will rub off on local foot­ballers and many of the stars will be involved on the coaching side as well as playing.” He immediately dis­misses any hint of jealousy over the planet-sized con­tracts. Most local players will take home an average of 80,000 Qatari riyals this year (about £14,000), but al-Sulaiti assures me: “Players have shown no jealousy and want to compete. Top players want to play here and we expect crowd levels to be given a real boost.”

The game could do with a boost. Despite the fact that the state-of-the-art stadiums boast an average capacity of 30,000, last year’s biggest crowd was just over 10,000. “This is not because Qataris don’t love football, it’s the nation’s favourite game,” explains Gulf Times sports editor An­il John. “But of our population of 610,000, only 150,000 are nationals.”

If there is an element of peacocking to this, it is likely to be aimed at local neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two countries with whom Qatar have a long-standing sporting rivalry. While Qatar languish at 80th in the FIFA rankings, Saudi Arabia (49th) have taken part in an impressive two World Cups and the UAE, whose club side Al-Ain won last year’s Asian Champions League, competed in Italia 90.

The traditional approach has been to engage in what one local commentator calls a “trade in flesh blood”; a trade which saw eight Bulgarian weightlifters bought for $1m for the Olympics and 3000m-steeplechase runner Saif Saheed Shaheen change his name (Stephen Cherono) and nationality (Kenyan) just in time to pick up Qatar’s first gold medal in the World Athletics Championships. Likewise, Qatar’s national team have acquired the services of French coach Phillipe Troussier, the miracle-worker behind Japan’s recent successes, and victory against Qatar’s neighbours in the Asia Cup, or even a maiden qualification to the World Cup, would make him a popular man.

But if this is nothing more than a bloated attempt at national branding, however, you will find few critics locally. As the desert dust settles on the opening day encounter between Al Siliya and Al Arabi, one fan tells me: “If this is all just posturing, who cares? If the impact on football is positive and Qatar gets some good publicity along the way, is this wrong? Is this so different from your Premier League?”

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month