Qatar has become somewhat of a target ever since securing the right to host the 2022 Word Cup and the bull’s-eye on the team—and country’s—collective backs has only grown larger since the FIFA scandal exploded at the end of May. A friend of mine recently gave me a Qatari national team shirt as a gift so I thought it would be prudent to present my thoughts on the Arab nation’s footballing practices along with the shirt.
The shirt itself is a standard Nike design, similar to the Turkish and American national team shirts. The only unique feature of this shirt is the Qatari flag on the inside of the collar and the badge; the Arabic script makes an otherwise basic shirt visually interesting as well as reminding the viewer of the 1994 Adidas World Cup Ball. I wonder if Nike paid attention to that?
Image Courtesy Of: http://www.soccer.com/channels/worldcup-ball-collection/
Regardless, Nike tries to outfit the best in world football and Qatar are seen by many as a rising star—even if the football played on the pitch often leaves much to be desired. In a recent friendly in Crewe, England—one under-reported by world media—Qatar played to a draw with Northern Ireland in front of a little over 3,000 fans, enduring many jeers in the process. Personally, I understand the jeers but not for the traditional reasons. For me the issue is that Qatar’s football federation has pursued a policy of “employing”, for lack of a better word, mercenaries; half of the team were neither born nor raised in Qatar. Most of the players are of African origin, born in either Africa or France, yet they represent Qatar in international football. To understand what this means it is helpful to look at the bigger picture, where politics inevitably comes into play.
Qatar has been harboring ambitions to be a regional power in the Middle East for a long time, looking to capitalize on the regional fissures exposed by the Arab Spring. One route by which Qatar has tried to gain influence is through sport, specifically football, which Professor James Dorsey has written about extensively. Ever since the colonial days of the last century Africa has been a place empire builders have looked to exploit as a resource-rich periphery; then the search was for raw materials to support industry, now the search is for impoverished youths with athletic ability that have become the commodity in what some have termed “the new slave trade”. Qatar has mirrored the Europeans and, through a sports academy called Aspire, the country has been gobbling up young African talent. The “brawn drain” is not just limited to football and the rich Gulf state has also bought Africans to represent them in international track and field competitions.
What is worrisome is that Qatar’s search for mercenaries goes outside of the sporting realm: it extends to the political realm as well. The large labor force Qatar has imported from South Asia in order to support the country’s industrialization—and World Cup related construction projects—have been called mercenaries, although “mercenary” seems to be a kind word; they could be more accurately termed construction fodder as their high rates of death and injury are consistently ignored by the state. Although the Qatari business magazine cited above claims that “Qatar’s expatriates don’t carry swords; but hammers and briefcases.” the truth is that they also carry guns. It is estimated that Qatar has provided over 3 billion USD to rebels in Syria and, as one rebel officer in Syria interviewed by the Financial Times says, “Qatar has a lot of money and buys everything with money, and it can put its fingerprints on it.”
It should be noted that lately Qatar’s mercenary schemes have backfired with the FIFA scandal threatening the Qatari World Cup—the worker’s high death rates provide a convenient humanitarian excuse for its cancellation—and with the Syrian conflict becoming intractable despite Qatar’s unwavering support of the opposition. We can only hope that in footballing terms Qatar’s mockery of international football fails as well. Of course the subject of what “nationality” truly means in a footballing sense is tricky (in fact some pundits hate international football) and ESPN’s Gab Marcotti wrote a thought provoking piece about it in the context of dual nationals. But Aldo Simoncini, the goalkeeper for San Marino (one of European football’s minnows and a country that has no real hope of scoring a goal—let alone winning—every time they step on the pitch) offers a healthy interpretation. The man who has conceded over 120 goals while representing his country was asked in an interesting interview how it feels to play with no real hope of victory or even a respectable outcome. His reply? “Nobody pays us to play: We do it patriotically and Europe understands this.”
For me Mr. Simoncini’s spirit is the spirit of international football. It is a privilege—not a right—to represent one’s country in any form, and knowing that is what provides strong results in football and in life. There are some things money can’t buy; its something that Qatar is learning the hard way both on and off the pitch.