World Cup 2022: Qatar has little enthusiasm for its own domestic leagues

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Best of luck to anyone among Qatar’s 2.8million population seeking to avoid the World Cup being held in their country this month.

Reminders that the football world is about to visit can be found at every turn, especially in the capital city of Doha where the majority of matches will be played and most of the teams and fans based.

Enormous banners of superstars such as Harry Kane, Virgil van Dijk and Neymar adorn skyscrapers, every hotel room is gearing up for football-related guests and you’re never more than a few miles from a stadium.

Enormous banners featuring stars such as Brazil’s Neymar adorn skyscrapers in Doha as Qatar prepares to host the World Cup later on this month

England's Harry Kane and Holland's Virgil van Dijk look out from towers in downtown Doha

England’s Harry Kane and Holland’s Virgil van Dijk look out from towers in downtown Doha

The final countdown is now underway as Qatar prepares to welcome the football world

The final countdown is now underway as Qatar prepares to welcome the football world 

But the enthusiasm that will be on display from visiting fans of the 32 nations competing in the World Cup shouldn’t be confused with local passion for the game.

Qatar’s domestic football scene is pretty low-key with even top-of-the-table fixtures in the country’s Stars League attended by just a few thousand supporters.

Even the presence of the Spain and Barcelona icon Xavi, who played for and then coached the country’s most successful team, Al Sadd, did not create an explosion of interest.

While there is love among some Qataris for the world’s top leagues in England, Spain and elsewhere, with games broadcast extensively on BeIN Sports, this doesn’t extend to local matches.

When Sportsmail’s Ian Herbert attended a top match in the Stars League between Al Sadd and Al-Duhail last year there were just 3,000 spectators rattling around in a stadium that could hold far more.

More curiously, there was a kind of segregation between Qatari locals and the immigrant workers who’d come to support players from their own countries involved in the match.

The most vocal contingent of Al Sadd fans were African migrants who had come to watch Ghana international Andre Ayew.

A sparsely-populated stadium watches the match between Al Sadd and Al-Duhail last year

A sparsely-populated stadium watches the match between Al Sadd and Al-Duhail last year 

A very sparse crowd attends a Stars League match between Al Wakrah and Al Sadd in January

A very sparse crowd attends a Stars League match between Al Wakrah and Al Sadd in January

Some attempt to generate an atmosphere at matches, such as these supporters of Qatar SC

Some attempt to generate an atmosphere at matches, such as these supporters of Qatar SC

A Stars League match at the Al Thumama Stadium is played out before a very sparse crowd

A Stars League match at the Al Thumama Stadium is played out before a very sparse crowd

This bunch created all the colour and atmosphere while robed Qataris, mostly male, sat alongside in silence taking in the action.

One Al Sadd fan, 24-year-old Saoud, told Sportsmail: ‘It is true, that group have made noise but you see, this isn’t for us. We are calm. We’re just not like that. We are not natural Ultras.’

It reflects no doubt the conservative nature of a country whose human rights record and treatment of those workers who build their stadiums and infrastructure will rightly come under the microscope again in the coming weeks.

It also suggests those locals lucky enough to have tickets for games at the World Cup, especially those involving the host nation, aren’t going to be generating much atmosphere.

That will be left to the visiting hordes from around the globe, who will no doubt prove something of a novelty even if Qatari citizens are well used to being outnumbered by foreigners.

A 2017 census found 88 per cent of the country’s populations were expats with the majority coming from the Asian subcontinent, working in most cases on the enormous World Cup construction projects.

Football has been played in the Gulf state since the 1940s, when oil workers introduced it

Football has been played in the Gulf state since the 1940s, when oil workers introduced it

Fans in robes are seen watching the Emir Cup final between Al Sadd and Al Rayyan last year

Fans in robes are seen watching the Emir Cup final between Al Sadd and Al Rayyan last year

Those looking to get rich from the post-war Gulf oil boom first introduced football to Qatar in the 1940s and the first leagues and tournaments held throughout the 1950s were organised by the oil firms.

The Qatar Football Association was established in 1960 and the first Qatar League was created in 1972-73.

In 2009, just before Qatar was surprisingly voted 2022 World Cup hosts, the top-flight became the Stars League amid a concerted effort to attract famous names in the twilight of their careers to play there.

Each club was handed $10million by the national FA to make this happen and the enticement of a nice financial boost saw Pep Guardiola turn out for Al-Ahli, Romario (very briefly) play for Al Sadd and Gabriel Batistuta end his playing career at Al-Arabi.

Xavi lasted far longer than most. He played four seasons for Al Sadd, racking up 117 appearances during his late 30s, before beginning his coaching career there.

Gabriel Batistuta, Pep Guardiola and Claudio Caniggia have all played in the Qatari league

Gabriel Batistuta, Pep Guardiola and Claudio Caniggia have all played in the Qatari league

Guardiola played for Al-Ahli during the twilight years of his career between 2003 and 2005

Guardiola played for Al-Ahli during the twilight years of his career between 2003 and 2005

His final game in charge was the aforementioned 3-3 draw with Al-Duhail in November 2021, before he returned home to take charge of Barcelona.

Xavi won one league title and one Emir of Qatar Cup (the main knockout competition) as a player and one league and two cups as coach.

The former midfielder was also involved in promotional efforts ahead of the World Cup and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you wouldn’t hear him about the country despite everything.

‘It’s true there is no democracy in Qatar, but the people are happy. They are delighted with the royal family, they take their photographs in the car,’ he said to Spanish paper Vanguardia in 2017.

In another interview two years later, Xavi suggested the Qatari ‘non-democracy’ model worked better than in Spain as his home country prepared for fraught elections.

Xavi not only finished his playing career at Al Sadd but then went on to become their coach

Xavi not only finished his playing career at Al Sadd but then went on to become their coach 

The now-Barcelona manager achieved considerable success, winning league titles and cups

The now-Barcelona manager achieved considerable success, winning league titles and cups

Al Sadd, who play at the 12,946-capacity Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, could be regarded as Qatar’s equivalent to Manchester United or Liverpool.

They have won 16 league titles, twice as many as anyone else. That includes three of the last four. In addition, Al Sadd are the only Qatari team to have won the Asian Champions League – in 1989 and 2011.

Al-Rayyan have eight league titles to their credit, while Al-Arabi, Al-Gharafa and Al-Duhail have seven apiece.

The 12-team Stars League is taking an extended pause for the World Cup and halted just seven games in during September with Al-Arabi a point clear at the top. It resumes on December 22.

Former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla is currently playing for Al-Sadd in the Qatari league

Former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla is currently playing for Al-Sadd in the Qatari league

Local children wave Qatari flags as they watch the national team train ahead of the World Cup

Local children wave Qatari flags as they watch the national team train ahead of the World Cup

Clubs can register as many foreign players as they like but only five can be included in a matchday squad.

Names you might recognise currently playing out there include former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla, ex-Blackburn and Stoke man Steven Nzonzi and Ayew, formerly of Swansea and West Ham.

Given that the lowest capacity of the eight World Cup venues is 40,000 and empty seats dominate as it is, those who run the Stars League had better hope the Qatari nation is about to fall in love with football.

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