The FIFA World Youth Championship held in Qatar in 1995 was the catalyst for the resurgence of football in this Middle Eastern state. The huge investment that has subsequently poured into Qatari football is proof of the determination of the authorities to raise the standards of the game there. No expense has been spared in luring some of the biggest names in world football. With their wealth of experience and ability, stars such as Fernando Hierro, Gabriel Batistuta, Stefan Effenberg and Josep Guardiola have added a touch of glamour, not to mention competitiveness, to the Qatari league. Of course, quality comes at a price, and the big name stars spending their twilight years in the sun are handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Top flight football demands first-class refereeing, and local officials have made strident efforts not to overlook this key issue. Last season, the Qatari Football Federation, in collaboration with numerous national associations, invited top international referees to Qatar to officiate in the country's league and cup games.
Numerous officials from Hungary, Spain and Mexico, among others, did not hesitate in packing their bags for an Asian adventure. One such ex-pat was Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez, an international refereeing assistant who headed off to Qatar with his Spanish colleague Carlos Megía Dávila. "Although we had to spend a month away from our family and friends, it was still a great experience," Yuste Jiménez told FIFA.com.
"The main purpose of the trip was to pass on the experience we have gained - in my case from the Spanish league - to our Qatari colleagues. We refereed games and then met up with local referees to review the games. This involved using the match video as a basis for a technical discussion, explaining the reasoning behind certain decisions and answering any queries that came up," he explained.
The visiting referees were quick to see the differences between their standards and those of their Asian counterparts. "Because of the demands made on us, we have to be better prepared both physically and mentally. Technically speaking, the Qatari officials are often lacking. Big game experience comes with officiating matches at the highest level. By our standards, the game there would still be considered 'amateur' in many respects."
The referees in Qatar are not subject to the same intense media scrutiny as their counterparts in Europe or South America, where officials' decisions are replayed endlessly and debated in the press. By contrast, in Qatar, football is not the national obsession it is in some parts of the world, and referees can officiate with comparative tranquillity.
Big backing but low turnouts
There are ten teams in Qatar's top league: Al Sadd (crowned this season's champions last week) Khor, Al Shamal, Al Ahli, Al Siliyah, Al Arabi, Al Ittihad, Al Wakra, Qatar SC and Al Rayyan. All the games are played in the state capital, Doha, which boasts an impressive eight stadiums, each with a capacity of between 20,000 and 40,000 spectators. Each week's fixtures are played over two or three days and all at one particular stadium. This leaves plenty of time for one team's supporters to leave the ground and make way for the next set to arrive.
There is a marked difference between the local and foreign players, with the latter normally excelling both in terms of technique and touch. The mix of national and international squad members (each club is allowed up to four overseas players) provides a perfect environment for the local players to learn from their more illustrious colleagues.
"It's obvious that there has been a huge amount of money invested in Qatari football. The stadiums are truly impressive, the pitches are like carpet and the dressing rooms have everything from gold faucets to marble flooring." commented the Spanish assistant referee. The only downside appears to be the poor attendance at games. "Very few people go to the matches - sometimes as few as 2,500," lamented Yuste Jiménez.
"I remember one game featuring former Barcelona star Josep Guardiola's club, Al Ahli, where there can't have been more than a few dozen supporters in this huge stadium. They had one flag and a loudspeaker so they didn't exactly fill the stadium with noise," says the Spaniard. It is a far cry from the passion of the European leagues where tens of thousands of supporters pack the stadiums each week and the pressure is nothing if not intense.
"Another unusual feature of football in Qatar is their use of big screens in the stadiums to replay key moments immediately after they happen. If there has been a disputed decision, say a disallowed goal or a penalty awarded, then the players have an opportunity to watch the replays being flashed across the stadium screens." The use of this new technology sometimes works against the referee. If, for example, the match official is seen to have made a mistake, then he can expect to come in for a lot of criticism from the players.
For Yuste Jiménez, his stay in Qatar was an unforgettable experience and immensely satisfying from both a personal and professional perspective. Next season, the Qatari Football Federation will no doubt be renewing its efforts to raise the standards and profile of football in the country, in order to achieve their stated goal of a fully professional league in the near future.