Naturalized Players Dominate Qatar’s Sports Scene

Posted on Feb 11, 2015 | 0 comments

Naturalized Players Dominate Qatar’s Sports Scene

The 2015 24th Men's Handball World Championship made one thing clear: there are not enough Qataris on Qatar's national teams. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup looming, the country is making efforts to build interest in sports among Qataris.

By Malak Monir and Sara Al-Thani

Qatar has come under fire for its over-dependence on naturalized players - non-Qataris who are granted temporary citizenship so they can represent the country in international competitions on its national teams. FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter took the country to task for having a team consisting mostly of recently naturalized citizens representing it during the 2015 24th Men’s Handball World Championship. Blatter warned Qatar against taking that approach for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

"The fact that sport builds social bridges and brings cultures together cannot be stressed often enough," Blatter wrote in the FIFA weekly magazine. "However, what happened at this year's Men's Handball World Championship in Qatar stretched this notion to the point of absurdity. The hosts were represented by a team comprising an overwhelming majority of recently naturalised players. The practice did not contravene International Handball Federation regulations, but it did contradict the spirit of a national team."

Shaden Wahdan, a Northwestern University in Qatar student and Egyptian-born gymnast on the Qatari national team, is one of many athletes who are granted a Qatari passport when representing the country at global competitions.

“As long as I am representing Qatar, I have it [the Qatari passport] but… if I quit, I don’t have it anymore,” said the 19 year old.

Whenever Wahdan travels to represent Qatar as part of the national gymnastics team, she trades in her Egyptian passport for a Qatari one, which she receives at the airport. This practice has been in place for some time for the country's gymnastics federation, Wahdan said, but was temporarily suspended from 2003-2012 after several incidents of athletes absconding with the Qatari passport.

“If I go to a competition I am representing Qatar, and I am given my Qatari passport. So I am considered as a national,” she said adding that she has to return the Qatari passport upon returning to Doha’s Hamad International Airport.

Wahdan said that it is possible for some non-Qatari athletes to gain full citizenship, however these cases are rare and none of them have been gymnasts so far. An expat athlete who has played for one of Qatar’s national teams and has won competitions and medals in the country’s name can apply for full citizenship by convincing the Qatar Olympic Committee of his or her merit, Wahdan said.

“From what I’ve learned, this is one of hardest citizenships to get,” Wahdan said. “Even in the U.S. it’s not this hard.”

She said she would like to someday claim Qatari citizenship herself, since she has never played for any other country’s team and has put all of her training and effort towards being a part of the Qatari national gymnastics team. Wahdan said that she has never felt compelled to play for her native Egypt given that she got her start in Qatar, left Egypt when she was still an infant and is not likely to receive the same material benefits there as she does in Qatar, which includes a monthly salary and financial aid for her education.

“Even if I’m not ‘Qatari’ Qatari, I’m still one of their own,” Wahdan said. “This is my hometown.”

Government officials in Qatar say the country is not doing anything wrong in temporarily nationalizing foreign players. They say the practice of allowing non-nationals to represent a country on the world stage is not unique to Qatar.

“This is not something we came up with, nor are we the first country to do it,” said Mohammed Al-Fadhala, a spokesperson for the Qatar Olympic Committee. “Whether they have the citizenship or not depends on the policies of the federation. Whoever represents the country, we consider Qatari,” said Al-Fadhala. “We respect him, be he Qatari, expat, or foreigner. If he’s going to the stadium to represent Qatar…He is a brother and dear to us and we treat him like a Qatari.”

One of the reasons why the country has had to depend on naturalized players is the small pool of professional Qatari players. According to data from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, out of an already small country-wide population of 2.27 million people, there are just 17,837 registered professional male athletes across 28 different sports – and some of these sports have zero registered athletes. The ministry did not specify whether these athletes are expatriates or permanent Qatari citizens. In an effort to cultivate more homegrown Qatari athletes, the Qatar Olympic Committee has launched several programs targeted towards schools in the hopes that they encourage young potential athletes, both Qatari and expat, to pursue a professional career in sports.

“The goal is not only to have them participate. To embed these values to these students and to make them understand and aware of the importance of sports and someday these sports will be an essential part of their life,” Al-Fadhala said.

The Qatar Football Association is taking steps to increase the number of Qatari nationals playing on professional sports teams. Just last year, QFA decided to lower the number of foreign players allowed on the field, from four to three, according to a tweet sent out by the official QFA Twitter account. Ali Al Salat, a media officer at QFA, said it is challenging to recruit actual citizens within such a small country like Qatar, but QFA is trying to encourage more people in general to play football. “We are trying to bring in everyone, be they Qatari or not,” he said.

Al Salat said studies found that many Qatari men choose not to continue playing soccer after high school, preferring to follow other pursuits instead. “Some of them join the military. Some of them get scholarships and go off to study in other countries,” Al Salat said.

Al Salat himself is a former football player who used to play for a local professional club. Despite this, he was never considered a professional player, he said, because “the profession didn’t exist for Qataris – there was no such thing as professional football for Qataris." Cultural expectations dictated that a Qatari man should have a more traditional job and then play sports for fun after work. Foreign players, however, signed professional contracts with clubs while Qatari players were given token payments. As a result, he said, many Qataris earned less than their foreign counterparts on the field.

Qatar is now trying to offer more incentives for its young men to try for a professional sports career by offering the best of both worlds: the academic and the athletic. Aspire Academy, a national sports academy, offers young Qatari and expat children a concentrated sports development and sports science curriculum. Representatives there say the school makes every effort to ensure that its students keep up with their academics whenever they are called out of the country for competitions. According to Jassim Al-Jabir, the principal of Aspire Academy, one of the biggest challenges the academy faces is convincing graduating students to continue playing sports through college. This is difficult since university schedules can be hectic and often inflexible.

“The professional contract stipulates that he must attend practice in the morning and in the evening,” said Al-Jabir, adding that universities have strict attendance policies that will not allow an athlete to miss classes for an extended period of time for tournaments abroad. “This will not give him the chance to continue with the university.”

In order to combat this issue, he said Aspire is negotiating with universities both in Qatar and abroad to try and afford Qatari students a more flexible timetable. However, one other roadblock still stands in the way of the academy’s goal to encourage more student athletes to turn professional. Ironically, it’s the same thing that has helped Qatari teams have a greater impact in international tournaments: the naturalizing of foreign players.

“The bigger issue our Qatari students face is that they feel that they bring people in, naturalize them and place them in the national team. So they tell themselves, 'Why should I trouble myself and make the effort when they can replace me with a naturalized player?'” Al-Jabir said.

“We Qataris, we have luxury. They say, 'What will I achieve in the end? Everything is available to me,'” he added. “To change this mentality you need time.”

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