Does Qatar have true football spirit? Doha News visited the biggest league in the country to find out.
Like all of Qatar’s World Cup facilities, this 40,000-capacity stadium is uniquely designed to intertwine the country’s decades-old culture with the sleekness of the modern world.
The stadium is expected to host seven matches up to the Round of 16, with its pitch and facilities ready for use by superstar footballers from around the globe. But just metres away from the stadium, three full-size caged pitches are already witnessing action of their own.
On any given day, dozens of players can be seen sprinting, dashing and slide tackling their way across the pitches. At least five full length 90-minute matches are played every evening, from September to May, in a fast-paced and cut-throat competition to determine which of the 40 teams are the true champions of Qatar.
This is the Qatar Community Football League.
With more than 1,500 players signed up, QCFL is by far the largest league in the country. Established by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, and delivered by Evolution Sports Qatar, the months-long competition brings together amateur players from dozens of nationalities worldwide – all shades are seen, all languages are heard and yet the celebratory cheering of every goal sounds very much the same.
“Everybody is different, but when they come together at QCFL, they become one community,” Zaid Mosawy, SC secretary-general’s office director told Doha News alongside an ongoing match.
“We have over 80 different nationalities, and that’s more diverse than any of the top divisions across Europe. We’ve really come together around football,” he proudly states.
When the league first started in 2016, expats from different world communities would naturally stick together, but as it has progressed over the years, abilities, skills and talent began to take precedent, and a beautiful mix started to take shape.
Manager of QCFL Omar Saad, himself British of Yemeni descent, takes pride in the level playing field provided by the platform.
“The league has allowed people that would not normally mix to do so in the evening over a game of football. You wouldn’t know who is who or who does what,” Saad told Doha News.
“This guy could be an executive,” he says, pointing at one of the players. “He could be a director,” he adds, pointing at another.
“Now they could both be playing with a security guard or a labourer – title really doesn’t matter on the pitch,” he added.
The league is open to anyone willing to take a shot – literally. As with any kick-about, it’s clear to see passion in the sweaty faces of all players involved. From the young and fit to the more elderly gentlemen, these games mean something to each individual.
“You’ve got guys who are dashing to come here after finishing work because they’re desperate and excited to play football. You’ve got groups of workers who’ve just finished a shift that have come together in a taxi, still sweating from their jobs. But they come here and they’re smiling and ready to do something they love and find joy in,” Mosawy said. “This is their home away from home.
And what a home it is. Eight huge floodlights tower above the world-class training ground. Metres of real grass, identical in quality to the World Cup stadium next door, provide the most realistic experience of professional football for these amateur players.
“In 2022, when some 1.5 million visitors from around the world touchdown to watch the World Cup, the love and spirit of football, the talent, the skill, the passion, will all be very clear to see.”
“These exact pitches were designed for national teams taking part in the 2022 World Cup. The idea is that these pitches are replicas of the stadiums so the players feel no difference when they step out onto the grass for their games,” Saad said. “So these guys on this pitch right now, are getting a surreal footballing experience by all means of the word,” he added.
The half time whistle is blown and a tall figure in fluorescent pink runs off to join us on the side of the pitch. The highly sociable character introduces himself as Niculae Vasile, a former professional who played for a Romanian team some years ago. Now a resident of Qatar with years of experience under his belt, Vasile enforces the law of the game on the pitch as one of the most decorated referees.
“Everyone here is passionate, energetic – the feeling here is electric every day,” he says, clearly harnessing the excitement of the players in his own speech. The former pro player also described the talent as “almost at a professional level”.
“Yes, surprising, I know. But just look at this, look! The gameplay, the facilities; Qatar has prepared and is preparing something truly magnificent, mind-blowing. The world will see very soon, just wait,” he added with a smile plastered across his face.
But Vasile isn’t the only professional involved. Qatar’s national team player and Duhail striker, Mohammed Muntari is also a regular face, though his scope of skill at QCFL is strictly limited to the technical area on the sidelines.
The naturalised Qatari of Ghanaian descent is paying it forward by taking full financial and moral responsibility as the manager of the Black Stars of Doha – a team encompassing skilled Ghanaian players that have found themselves at the helm of a local celebrity.
Just last week, the country marked ten years since the historic day it won the bid to host the 2022 games. Shortly after the win, Qatar was inundated with criticism over its alleged lack of identity or presence in the footballing world.
But standing in the centre of the state-of-the-art training ground among scores of players quickly quells misconceptions about Qatar’s football spirit. Football is undoubtedly the most popular sport in the Gulf state and wider region, and it has been entrenched into its culture for the decades.
Even without today’s world-class facilities, Qatar’s relationship with football stretches back to the 1940s when the first ever match was played by a group of workers. Within a couple of years, the first ever Qatari football team, Al-Najah, was born and the country held its first ever Ezz Eddin tournament in 1951. Notably, the Doha Stadium was the first real-grass pitch in the entire region.
The Qatar Federation Cup was established 60 years ago and officially joined FIFA in 1970. Just three years later, Qatar launched its first ever league. With just 40 years between its official FIFA recognition and winning the World Cup bid in 2010, it’s clear to see just how far and how quick Qatar has muscled its way into the footballing world.
More recently in the last 15 years, Qatar has successfully imported more than 500 major international sports events, conferences and training camps – many of which focused solely on football.
Additionally, the Qatari national team has also made waves in recent years as the 2019 champions of the Asian Cup. When Qatar secured the tournament in 2010, the team was ranked by FIFA as 113rd worldwide. Today, as the country quickly constructs its way into becoming a football haven, the national team has catapulted to 59th place.
“We just want to keep on building up the community, giving them access to football and creating that ‘legacy opportunity’ that is a huge part of the World Cup vision. In 2022, when some 1.5 million visitors from around the world touchdown to watch the World Cup, the love and spirit of football, the talent, the skill, the passion, will all be very clear to see.
“Our goal is to make sure that nobody ever questions whether Qatar has a pulsing footballing culture or a prominent and vibrant football scene”.