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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 August, 2003, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
The Qatar men
By Tom Fordyce

Forget Serie A, the Premiership or Primera Liga. There is only one place in the world that has dominated the football transfer market this summer - Qatar.

You heard right - Qatar. Argentine superstar Gabriel Batistuta, former Chelsea defender Frank Leboeuf, Brazilian World Cup winner Romario and Man City's Ali Benarbia will all be plying their trade in the small Middle Eastern state next season.

Population: 610,000
Capital: Doha
Major language: Arabic
Major religion: Islam
Monetary unit: 1 Riyal = 100 dirhams
Main exports: Oil, gas

Celtic striker Henrik Larsson could be the next to join them. "If I receive a firm offer, then it is something I will have to seriously discuss with my family," said the Swede at the weekend. "I will be listening to offers."

How did Qatar become the hot new destination for fading stars? There's a simple answer - money.

Qatar possesses the world's third largest natural gas reserves and its small population has one of the highest per capita incomes of any country.

"They are pumping in petrol dollars like crazy," explains Mohamed Chbaro, editor of

"Each team has been given $10m by the Qatar Olympic Committee to go out and employ up to four big foreign players.

"Batistuta is being handed $8m over two years - $5.5m in the first season and $2.5m in the second. For a player of 34 years of age, that's good money."

Batistuta will hardly be working his socks off for his cash, either. Each of the 10 teams in the top division plays just 18 league games a season, and a mere four wins in the Soccer Association Cup sees you through to the final.

Foreign stars apart, the Qatar league is somewhat lacking in glamour. Although it was founded as long ago as 1974, it has not yet caught the public's imagination.

The majority of players in each side are semi-professional, each holding down other jobs in addition to their sporting careers.

Gabriel Batistuta watches football in Qatar
Batistuta gets a taster of football in Qatar last May

The highest attendance at any game last year was a mere 10,000, at the big clash between Al-Sadd and Al-Rayyan.

The ultra-modern stadiums have an average capacity of 30,000, but so far they have never come close to being filled.

That might change with the glamorous new arrivals.

"Batistuta is a big hero in the Gulf region," says Chbaro. "Argentinean football, rather than Brazilian football, is really worshipped in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates."

In terms of goals, the chances are that less than a strike a game will make Batistuta the country's leading scorer.

Last season's golden boot went to Al-Khor's Rachid Rouki, whose 15 goals put him three clear of the pack.

Batistuta has also joined a team for whom relegation was more likely last season than the championship.

Al-Arabi finished a lowly eighth last season, three places off the bottom and a full 14 points behind champions Qatar SC.

Why is the Olympic Committee so keen to lavish millions on football?

Until this week it was headed by the emir of Qatar's son, Prince Tamim. And Tamim, who graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, is a huge sports fan.

As he has also been named as heir apparent by Qatar's current ruler, his father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, expect Qatar to continue pouring money into attracting top international names for the foreseeable future.

As Batigol, Leboeuf and the rest won't need reminding, the Al Thani family dominates the political scene in the capital Doha, although there has been a history of palace intrigue since the state gained independence from Britain in 1971.

And while Qatar, as a key ally of the US, hosted the advanced headquarters of the American forces during the invasion of Iraq, it is also the home of controversial television news channel, al-Jazeera - which is funded by the Al Thanis.

Benarbia heads to Qatar
27 Jul 03  |  African
Batistuta heads for Qatar
08 Jun 03  |  Other European


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