This week would have been the perfect opportunity for Barcelona to gain an edge on their rivals. Spanish Liga leaders Real Madrid are in Japan playing two energy-sapping games in the maligned Club World Cup, while Atletico Madrid were on league duty on Monday evening. This was a chance for the Catalans to rest up and recuperate, a chance they have passed up on.
Rather than afforded their players some recovery time at such a testing time of year, Barcelona are instead in Qatar this week to play a friendly match. Luis Enrique’s Spanish champions will take on Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in Doha, with a sell-out crowd of 18,000 fans expected at the Thani Bin Jassim Stadium. As friendly matches go, this is as glamorous as they come.
Barcelona have painted their trip as something of a developmental drive. This match will help grassroots football in Qatar and the Gulf, they claim. The Catalans have taken a full squad to Doha and some of their players are slated to lead training sessions with local children alongside club legend Xavi Hernandez, who now plays for Al Sadd. It’s all a front, though.
Of course, nobody could begrudge some children the opportunity to meet and kick a ball around with their footballing heroes for an hour or so, but the idea that Barcelona are somehow helping the growth of the sport in the Arab world by playing this match is simply empty rhetoric. Don’t be fooled, this friendly will benefit Barcelona and only Barcelona.
The argument goes that by putting on such a spectacle interest in football will subsequently spike in Qatar and around the Gulf. That children will be inspired by what they have watched to take up the sport themselves. Countries make bids to host major tournaments like the World Cup on this sole basis.
The 1994 hosting of the World Cup in the USA is held aloft as an example of how showcasing the very best of the sport can benefit the grassroots. It is true that the United States now looks back at the 1994 World Cup as a footballing watershed, but that had very little to do with the tournament itself. It was a result of the $60 million invested into a not for profit fund created solely to promote and support grassroots initiatives in the country.
Barcelona could claim to be playing Tuesday’s match for the benefit of Gulf football were they making a financial commitment to grassroots development. But they’re not. Their players will pose for photographs, sign autographs and put on a show - most likely a very entertaining one - but they will fly back to Spain on Wednesday having picked up more than they have left behind.
Tuesday’s friendly in Doha is purely a commercial exercise, highlighted by the contract between Barcelona and match sponsors Qatar Airways which stipulates Enrique must field a full strength team. Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and co. will all feature because they are contractually obliged to. Without them Barcelona wouldn’t shift as much merchandise, after all.
And yet a certain rhetoric has been embedded in the minds of almost everyone associated with the Gulf game. This match is being treated as a showcase for the Arab game, underlined by the fact recently-crowned Asian Player of the Year and UAE playmaker Omar Abdulrahman has been given special dispensation by Al Ain to turn out for Al Ahli on Tuesday evening.
Zlatko Dalic spoke about a “historic friendly” which “I believe will have a positive impact.” But the impact Tuesday’s friendly will have will be minimal, if determinable at all. Football is already a mainstream pursuit in the Arab world, exposure is already as high as it is likely to ever get. What is needed is grassroots development and investment. That might come with the 2022 World Cup, but Barcelona certainly won’t bring it.SHOW MORE