Assessing Xavi Hernandez’s impact on Qatari football

Like rival Raul before him, can Al Sadd’s new superstar actually propel the locals into the global arena? (File photo: AP)

It took just nine minutes for Xavi Hernandez to make an impression on his debut for Al Sadd. Renowned for his passing range and set-piece ability, the legendary Spanish midfielder found Lee Jung-soo with a trademark freekick delivery, with his new teammate heading home for a 1-0 lead over Al Mesaimeer.

He had arrived, but the backdrop such a moment was set against provided the most pressing talking point.

While Xavi’s freekick assist was shared countless times over social media, captured in Vine form, the audience present to witness such an occasion was somewhat smaller in scale. The Spanish World Cup and European Championships winner was billed as a headline act for Qatari football - a shining attraction for the fledgling Qatar Stars League - but on the basis of the crowd visible, not many had been attracted.

Indeed, Qatari football attendances have been the subject of much mocking in recent years - not helped by viral videos like the one that circulated following a QSL match between Al-Gharaffa and Al-Kharaitiyat, for which just one spectator allegedly showed up.

Such feeble crowds prompt discussion over the true impact of shimmering global icons on the Qatari game. Xavi certainly isn’t the first superstar to be drawn to the Gulf state, with Raul Gonzalez and Romario among those to have seen out the latter years of their career there, but what influence have such players had on the stature and standing of football in the country?

Helping Qatar’s World Cup?

Qatar has become something of a controversial word in football ever since it was awarded the 2022 World Cup to the Gulf state five years ago. But regardless of whether their bid was legitimate or not, the country’s sporting aspirations are about more than just the World Cup. That’s where the likes of Xavi come in.

2022 is only the cornerstone of Qatar’s grand footballing project, with the development of their domestic league perhaps a better gauge of their progression. The hope is that Xavi - and Raul before him - will have a bigger impact on Qatari football than is immediately detectable. They have a greater role to play, and it might take seven years at the very least for that impact to be felt.

But what will Xavi do that Raul wasn’t able to? The former Barcelona man is just as big a draw as the Real Madrid legend, and while Raul boasted a credible goal scoring record he didn’t quite change the footballing landscape in Qatar in the way that was perhaps imagined. The QSL needs more than just one or two token superstars - the division’s growth needs to be much more organic than that. Xavi’s arrival could be little more than just garnish.

In the immediate term, Xavi has certainly lived up to his billing. At 35-years-old it might be presumed that the Spaniard would wish to wind down his career at such a time, but he has quickly become a mainstay of the Al Sadd starting lineup. He isn’t just central to Qatar’s footballing project as a whole, but to his club’s aspirations too.

Al Sadd resurgence?

Al Sadd were once an Asian football powerhouse, winning the AFC Champions League twice in their history - most recently in 2011. They boast a record 13 league titles, but have yet to win one since 2013. The Doha club have since been eclipsed by Lekhwiya as Qatari football’s predominant force, and Xavi is seen as the man to help lead Al Sadd’s resurgence.

“I have a ton of titles, with Spain and with Barça, but I always want to win more,” explains Xavi. “And not just the local championship, we also want to be fighting for the Asian Champions League. We have the ingredients to win it.”

Every ambition, every target comes with deeper meaning for clubs in burgeoning divisions like the Qatar Stars League, though.

Continental success might go some way to vindicating the €10 million salary being paid to Xavi, but in the grander scheme of things even that would mean little without the accompanying inflation of Qatari football’s stature and general prosperity.

That’s what he’s really in the Gulf to achieve. That’s how he will be judged.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:49 - GMT 06:49