Qatar 2022 World Cup unites shifting notions of citizenship with homeland pride
For football experts, analysts and passionate fans, the days leading up to the opening kick-off of a FIFA World Cup are usually spent pouring over squad lists, player biographies and previews of the 69 matches to come.
One infographic doing the rounds on Twitter ranks World Cup teams by their players born outside of the nation they will be representing at the upcoming tournament.
Quite predictably, all five African teams, which rely heavily on their diasporas, figured near the top, as did Wales and Australia.
"As the leadership of the country adopted more aggressive and ambitious goals in the sporting arena, it was clearly understood that immigration would play a heavy role in helping Qatar step up to another level"
With 10/26 players born abroad, hosts Qatar also rank highly on the aforementioned list. Yet unlike Wales, Australia or Morocco, Qatar's expedited naturalisation policies of the past make the statistic useful fodder for critics.
Yet, for many who are born and/or raised in the country, the Qatari footballing melting pot represents the very best of what the country has to offer.
Golden generation years in the making
For a country of its size, Qatar’s footballing history is not devoid of accomplishments.
Qataris still reminisce of the 1981 World Youth Championship, where the team beat Brazil and England as finalists or that magical run in 1998 World Cup qualifying where the Annabi were a single match away from qualifying for the Mundial.
Notwithstanding, as the leadership of the country adopted more aggressive and ambitious goals in the sporting arena, it was clearly understood that immigration would play a heavy role in helping Qatar step up to another level.
Shallow naturalisation efforts were attempted in early 2004 with Brazilian striker Ailton and left-back Dede, but those were quickly shot down by Sepp Blatter’s FIFA who immediately stiffened legislation surrounding national eligibility requirements in football.
Later attempts were more successful as in 2006 striker Sebastien Soria, who was born and raised in Uruguay, switched allegiances and became a cult-like figure in Qatar, scoring 39 goals in 123 matches.
Yet, it was with the founding of Aspire Academy that Qatar’s footballing fortunes really began to build.
Founded in 2004, the state-of-the-art institution has since recruited some of the world’s top experts and players from Africa, Asia and Europe over the past decade and a half. Spanish coach Felix Sanchez was one of the first hires at Aspire, and he has gone on to successfully groom a golden generation of talent that has meshed impeccably over the years.
Their potential started becoming apparent at the 2014 U19 AFC Asian Cup that Qatar won under the Catalan manager.
In that tournament, Akram Afif and Almoez Ali, the future attacking cornerstones of the Annabi, grew to prominence scoring 4 and 3 goals respectively. Two years later, the same generation of players under Sanchez made it to the semi-finals of the U23 AFC Asian Cup.
Yet, the crowning moment, and the greatest indicator, that this group was special was the 2019 AFC Asian Cup triumph. In the midst of the Gulf Cooperation Council diplomatic crisis and subsequent embargo of Qatar which began in 2017, Sanchez’s men rose to the occasion, brilliantly winning the tournament against all odds in the United Arab Emirates.
Every single player that composed that squad of 23 immediately became a national hero and the power of football immediately dissolved differences that may sometimes linger in society.
Thick and thin citizenship
In his chapter entitled “Homeland: National Identity Performance in the Qatar National Team”, published in Football In The Middle East, Thomas Ross categorizes the diversity of the Qatari national team along Gijsbert Oonk’s spectrum model of “thick” and “thin” citizenship or along three categories: kinship, territorial birthright and contribution.
Of the national heroes of 2019, 6 players are Qatari of kin, 11 were born and raised on the peninsula, and 6 were naturalised for their footballing talent.
At various points throughout the tournament, Qatari players displayed their explicit patriotism, commitment and loyalty. The likes of Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Abdelkarim Hassan and Hassan Al-Haydos all tweeted in support of Emir Tamim or every player donned warm-up shirts of the Emir’s silhouette.
As Ahmed Hashim, an Indian ex-pat football journalist born and raised in Qatar told The New Arab, Qatar’s win over Japan in the final of the Asian Cup meant just as much to him as it did to a Qatari of "thick citizenship".
"Which football team doesn’t rely on immigration... For Qatar to have players like Afif or Al Rawi who are of different heritage doesn’t matter. We don’t see them as different, once they don the maroon of Qatar they are Qatari. I just hope they make us proud during the World Cup"
“Assim Madibo (of Sudanese heritage) has the same background as me. His father worked for the police, and so did mine. We grew up in the same town in the south of Qatar. To see a player like Madibo play for Qatar in the Asian Cup felt amazing. I could feel that a lot of people – ex-pats included – transformed into Qatari national team fans,” Hashim said.
“Sometimes Western journalists or critics believe we suffer Stockholm Syndrome, but it was genuine excitement,” he laughed.
Abdullah Alsuleiti, and Ali Al Majid, young Qataris both recall the powerful emotions they felt on that night.
"The feeling was surreal and nothing can describe it," Alsuleiti recalls.
Al Majid called it, "One of the proudest days I felt as a Qatari football fan."
Both quashed the thought of feeling less love for immigrant players.
“Which football team doesn’t rely on immigration? Spain has Aymeric Laporte (France) and Diego Costa (Brazil). Declan Rice in England is of Irish heritage. For Qatar to have players like Afif or Al Rawi who are of different heritage doesn’t matter. We don’t see them as different, once they don the maroon of Qatar they are Qatari. I just hope they make us proud during the World Cup,” Al Majid finished.
The chips are all in
Over the last six months, the Qatari national team has mostly camped out in Europe, steadily preparing for the World Cup.
Back home, the deflated domestic league has been relegated to annex pitches and matches do not have the same vigour.
“I don’t ever recall another host nation preparing like this,” Hashim explains, ambivalently.
Afif and co. competed in seven friendly matches since late July.
In some matches, they’ve looked prepared and well-organised, such as in a 2-2 draw versus Chile on September 27. The match four days before that, however, was a downer.
Qatar lost 0-2 to a young Canadian team and had people at home asking if the team had grown past its prime or become stale.
“People on social media were really disgruntled during the Canada match. Some people feel the team may lack fresh ideas or players,” Hashim continues.
But there’s no turning back now.
With a squad of 26 players entirely selected from the Qatar Stars League, Felix Sanchez is once more hedging his bets on familiarity. In fact, the hosts will be the most experienced side in the competition with 1,472 total caps, far surpassing Belgium's 1,340 appearances in second place.
No efforts have been spared along this 12-year odyssey to perform at the peak when the World Cup finally rolls around.
You can, therefore, rest assured that when Qatar plays host to Ecuador in the opening match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Al Bayt Stadium on Sunday evening, the entire nation will come together and celebrate the very best of what Qatar has to offer on the pitch.
Maher Mezahi is an Algerian football journalist based in Marseille. He has covered North African football extensively, with his work published in international publications such as the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, ESPN Africa and Al Jazeera English.
Follow him on Twitter: @MezahiMaher