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A Brazilian mentor, Indian workers making a name in football, oil money: the Qatar story

British engineers and Indian workers first kicked about a football at the oil port of Dukhan in 1950s; many years of planning later, Qatar hope to give a good account as participant, not just hosts.

Dukhan Sports Club after winning the league back in 1950. (Photo: Twitter)

Far from the football-abuzz Central Doha, on the west coast of Qatar, lies Dukhan, a dot in the spot of a country that juts out like a shrub from the sand-dunes of Saudi Arabia. Once a nameless fishing village, the first trace of oil in the country was discovered in 1935; as mining progressed ships and boats passing along the Persian Gulf saw smoky fumes from afar, swirling into the skies like the curves of a mountain. They named the port Jebel Dukhan, or smoky mountains.

A decade later, Qatar, then a British protectorate, shipped out the first of the several barrels of oil from the port of Dukhan. It was here, as the myth goes, that a football rolled for the first time in the country. There is no historical proof, more of a passed-on myth, but the earliest footballing photograph of a football game in the country was shot in Dukhan. It shows a few British engineers and Indian workers in polo t-shirts and white shorts with a battered football, ruffled hair and painted smiles, of the Dukhan Sports Club just after helming the 1950 league. Qatar national museum has preserved the picture, as has the Dukhan Sports Club. It’s the story of football everywhere, an import of the colonisers.

Dukhan was sparsely populated, but the news of Britishers and Indian migrant labourers kicking about a ball spread far and wide by word of mouth. The locals began to call it Al Koora (or the round ball). A localised version too sprung, called koora sharab, a football made with socks and clothes. Most of the country’s early generation of footballers had played the game in their childhood. Says former footballer Mohamed Al Siddique, a winger for Al-Ahli, who played in the late 60s and 70s: “Those days, football was not too popular, it was a game of teenagers, and the parents would not buy you a football. So we played with a ball we made out of socks. But the more we played, the more it became a part of our life.” Before football, sport in the country, as well as the Middle East, meant falconry or camel riding or saluki racing (dog racing).

Then came television and World Cups, with the oil boom (so oil-rich that when they could not find chalk powder, they marked the lines of the football ground with crude oil!) and petrodollars. “The country celebrated Pele’s Brazil winning the World Cup [in 1971]. Suddenly everyone wanted to play the game,” he tells the Indian Express. A year later, Qatar snapped off its colonial ties and delinked its Ottoman past. With nation-building aspirations, blossomed sporting ambitions too.

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The Doha Stadium is like a historical monument these days. People just pass by the structure, lined with posh villas, as though it does not exist. But to some, it whips up nostalgia. “It was the first ground in the Middle East with a grass pitch. I have played countless games here,” says Siddique. But there is another reason he keeps the ground close to his heart. “It’s here I played with the greatest. Pele.” he says.

As part of an international tour, Pele and his mates from Santos agreed to play a game against Al-Ahli, the country’s first football club where Pep Guardiola spent his fading days as player, in Doha. According to a Gulf Times report, “The stadium’s capacity was around 30,000, but there were easily twice as many. There were people on the fence, near the touchline and sitting on each other’s lap.” Siddique, of course, had bigger things to watch out for, namely the flying wingers of Santos. Needless to say, Santos hammered Al-Ahli 3-0. But it captured the imagination of a generation.

But Pele is not the only Brazilian in Qatar football. It’s Evaristo, a terrifyingly talented forward who wore Brazil’s jersey just 15 times (in which he munched nine goals, and still holds the record of most goals for Brazil in a single match, five against Colombia in 1957) because his club Barcelona did not let him go for the 1958 World Cup. In anger, he joined Real Madrid next year. But so outrageous was Brazil’s talent-stream that he was repeatedly overlooked.

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None of that bitterness lingered when he took over as the head coach of the team in 1980. By that time, the league’s standards had improved, even though remaining beneath the European or Central Asian counterparts. He was in for a cultural shock: “A street in Sao Paulo had more people than the entire country,” he would recollect to O Globo. Qatar’s population then was merely three lakhs, though a steep leap from 16,000 it had in the mid 40s. His biggest task was scouting players under 20 for the World Youth Cup in Australia in 1981. “There were just around 2000 people under this age,” said Evaristo.

Evaristo (right) being presented a memento. (Twitter)

But that would not deter the man who asked a Qatari traveller on his first flight to the country to teach him some basic Arabic words and sentences so that he could marvel them straight away with his speech. And by popular accounts, he did win over their affection in the twitch of the fingers. Badr Bilal, one of Qatar’s greatest footballers, and a star of the Youth World Championship, calls him, “Brother, father and friend.” They call him ‘Fraristo’, and have named a card game too after him, called Brasilero.

He had less than six months to prepare the team for the championship. So even before setting his home up, he began travelling around the country, which itself was not large,  but the skin-scorching sun would leave him wracked. “He found that we had a lot of raw talent, but had to improve our fitness level,” Badr told QFA on the sidelines of Qatar’s countdown to the World Cup programme the year before.

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In Evaristo’s own words, they did possess the skill but not the physical intensity to last the entire 90 minutes. Then, they lacked football intelligence that only playing in tougher leagues would instill. So he found the simplest solution; he took them to Brazil for a month, where they would encounter a local club every day. “I remember the first few games, we couldn’t touch the ball, they were so skilful. We lost badly. But Fraristo kept encouraging us, telling us to keep attacking. The experience changed our game as well as the outlook towards the world,” says Sameer Almas.

The country seemed a different universe for them, where life was more carefree and fun-filled. “An education on life and football,” Bilal says. On the trip back, he asked Evaristo whether he saw any promise in the team. He replied: “Yes, the promise of Youth World Champions.” Everyone chuckled. It was meant to be a joke, wasn’t it? At the World Cup would be the brightest talents from countries with rich football heritage. “But he would tell us that the football you kick does not know whether you  are German or English. It’s up to the skill of the person with the ball to make it talk. You have to believe in yourself,” says Almas.

With hope, they landed in Australia. The next month was to be the most memorable month in their lives as well as a turning point in Qatar’s football history. Stunning Poland 1-0 and drawing the USA, they scraped to the knockouts. Awaiting them in the last eight was Brazil, the dream and destination of Qatar. “We were star-struck, but Evaristo told them we had nothing to lose. Go for it,” Almas recollects. Evaristo calls this the Miracle of Newcastle. Qatar shocked Brazil 3-2. All three goals were scored by a wiry teenager Khalid Al Mohamadi. The occasion, for them, was as grand as winning the World Cup. “We suddenly became famous back home, and I remember the Sheikh calling the team that night at the hotel,” Bilal would say in the function.

But the Brazilian coach would advise them not to over-celebrate, for there were two more games. The semifinal was against England, which they comfortably won 2-1. The dream run acquired a nightmarish hue when Germany swept them aside 4-0 in the finals at the SCG. Nonetheless, the tournament was a giant leap for the country.

It was no fluke but a combination of skill, desire and strategising. Evaristo would play a high line, deploy his keeper as a sweeper-keeper, and lay careful offside traps. “We did not have the best defenders in the world. But we had speed, players who were fast, and we would practise our tactics a thousand times over,” he tells Matthias Krug in his fascinating account of Qatar football, Journeys on a Football Carpet.

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Two days later, when they returned home, hordes of football converts thronged the airport. The players were tired but strode out of the airplane proudly, waving miniature Qatar flags. An impromptu cavalcade was arranged, as were flowers, expensive in the country, imported from Europe. “This was the moment football became the country’s favourite sport,” says Almas.

This was that moment when Qatar’s footballing dream sprouted. Forty one years later, after coming agonisingly close to qualifying for the 1990 Italia World Cup and enduring several other heartbreaks in the tumultuous journey, Qatar is in the World Cup.

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For all their power and planning, influence and ambition to host the largest sporting event in the world, the dream would not have been dreamt but for two Brazilians, Pele and Fraristo.

Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, the elder brother of the emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, has been the driving force of Qatar’s dreamy sporting ambitions. In 2005 he masterminded the launch of the state-funded Aspire Academy, where talents from across the world are spotted, relocated to Qatar and offered world-class training facilities.

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The academy has faced criticisms that it’s an alibi to scout talent, pluck them to Qatar and make them compete for the country. But the project, nonetheless, has nursed dreams of several talents that would have wasted its sweetness on the desert air.

The academy coughed up an incredible amount of money—as it has to deck up the country for the World Cup—to not only build infrastructure but also bring pedigreed coaches, directors and scouts. For instance, the head of the talent-scouting team was Josep Colomer, a former youth scout for F.C. Barcelona is generally credited with discovering Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry. The academy’s current director is Ivan Bravo, who was the former director of strategy in Real Madrid.

It was Colomer’s idea to search for talent in Africa. In the first year alone, Aspire screened nearly 400,000 boys in 600 locations across seven African countries. Nearly two decades later, Aspire has screened six million young athletes across three continents and parachuted their sporting careers. Almost 70 percent of Qatar World Cup squad has at some point spent time at the academy, which has eight world-class football pitches, among other state-of-the-art infrastructure. The coach Felix Sanchez has been at the academy since 2006, chiselling and polishing his coaching philosophy. Not just football, the academy is home to several athletes including Olympic medal winning high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim.

As for the borrowed sporting riches gripe, just three of Qatar’s squad were naturalised as adults. The rest are either Qataris or those of different descent born and brought up in Qatar, like their star striker Afif Akram, of Tanzanian-Somali descent. Afif Akram is the figurehead of Qatar’s golden generation. The winger was an influential figure in Qatar’s junior AFC’s triumph. Five years later, they clinched the Asian Cup beating traditional Asian powerhouse Japan 3-1.

“That’s the day I saw the country’s passion for the game. The love and appreciation for our players was mind-blowing,” Sanchez would tell the press. He must have felt like Evaristo nearly four decades ago. But he says, “It’s just the start. The World Cup is the real deal. In 2019, it was difficult to imagine that Qatar could win the Asian Cup. I’m not saying we would win the World Cup, but we will show how good we are.”

Among those who saw the rise of Qatar as a footballing nation was Xavi Hernandez, who wound down his stellar career at Al Sadd. In a speech at the Aspire Academy, as Krug narrates in his book, Xavi said: “Qatar has talent, a good coach, and a system that is working well. I think there will be surprises. They have the talent to do great things.”

Planning and passion have been the cornerstone of Qatar football’s rise. The roadmap to Asian Cup glory was not an Arabian Nights fairy-tale, but one that was rigorously charted out. At the stroke of the last century, a think tank at the academy got together and laid the blueprint. It included identifying a core group of teenagers, giving them training, making them play with teams in a higher age-group, providing foreign exposure, and inviting legends like Xavi and Raul to coaching workshops.

Three years after the Asian Cup, Qatar football awaits another leap. Just as hosting a World Cup, Qatar would know the importance of producing an upset or two to snipe condescending whispers that “money could buy a World Cup”, besides snides on their footballing heritage. Far away from all the buzz lies Dukhan, the smoky mountain that links oil, wealth and football. With oil came football, and with football came the Football World Cup. And it was not just an empire built on wealth and oil, but sand and sweat too.

First published on: 19-11-2022 at 01:21 IST
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