World Cup and European Championship winner, seven time league winner and three time Champions League winner – doesn’t sound like your typical Qatari league footballer does it?
But that’s exactly what Doha based club Al Sadd will be getting as of 1 July 2015, when FC Barcelona superstar Xavi Hernandez moves to the Middle East. While the Spanish midfield maestro is certainly not at the peak of his powers it is a big statement of intent for football in this region.
The links between Barça and the Gulf State are well established with Qatar Airways being Blaugrana’s first ever commercial shirt sponsor but even so it must have been a very attractive offer to convince Xavi to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world. Not to mention turning down equally lucrative offers from other European teams, the MLS, Australia or even the option of simply retiring.
The marquee acquisition of one of the world’s most famous and decorated players of the modern era is a much needed positive sports news story for the Middle East; which has been making a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons. Since Qatar controversially won the right to host the 2022 World Cup the media spotlight has been firmly fixed on the area. Allegations of bribery, countless human right abuses, migrant worker deaths and exploitation as well as corruption have routinely featured in the western media. The sudden death of Ecuadorian Christian Benitez at the age of just 27 from a cardiac arrest; after playing just one match for Qatari side El Jaish Sports Club, raised serious questions about the viability of playing football in such extreme temperatures during the summer.
These concerns have contributed to the unprecedented decision by the football world governing body FIFA to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter months.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that playing football in the Middle East is purely a graveyard for has-been footballers looking for a highly-paid semi-retirement. That may have been the case in the past with players like Real Madrid legends Fernando Hierro and Raul joining Al Sadd and Al Rayyan respectively in Qatar. It is worth noting that Raul has subsequently reversed his decision to hang up his boots and is now plying his trade for the New York Cosmos.
This trend has recently been bucked by two of Europe’s most up and coming managers in the form of Michael Laudrup and Manuel Jimenez taking up positions at Lekhwiya and Al Rayyan. The standard of the league as well as the individual players under their supervision can only benefit by having access to such top class coaching and expected levels of professionalism. Not to mention Argentinian international Lucho Gonzalez, Vladimir Weiss and Chico Flores currently turning out in the Qatari division. These are players in their prime that have turned their back on the glamour of the most prestigious European competitions.
There is a real determination to put football on the map in the Middle East and key to this is the performance of the Qatar national football team at the 2022 World Cup. President Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Thani is desperate for the national side to hold their own on the biggest stage of all and show that there is more to the country than being oil rich.
Xavi may not be the first high profile footballer to make the move to the Middle East but he is unlikely to be the last.