Hockey Sapling Firmly Planted in the Qatari Desert

Feature on Qatar Hockey published in the February 2013 Issue No: 41 of PUSH (the only independent print magazine on hockey in the UK).

Hockey Sapling Firmly Planted in the Qatari Desert- Growing at a Breathtaking Pace

A country without a national hockey body before 2009 had a dream year of hockey in 2012. In one single year Qatar achieved a number of milestones. They played their first ever international game, tasted the maiden international victory (over a nation ranked much above them) and staged not one but two international tournaments –that too FIH sanctioned- the second of which had continent’s top sides.

Dynamic Duo behind all this-QHF president Hassan Al Qadi & secretary general Mohamed Abdul Nazer
Dynamic Duo behind all this-QHF president Hassan Al Qadi & secretary general Mohamed Abdul Nazer

The oil rich gulf kingdom is world’s wealthiest country according to Forbes. Also has the highest GDP per capita and planet’s fastest economy growth rate at 19%. The expatriates outnumber the locals. The native population of just 250,000 constitute less than one sixth of the total 1.8 million people. More than 40% of the expatriates come from South Asia or the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder, people from India and Pakistan played the pivotal role in the development of the Qatar hockey.

Mohamed Abdul Nazer, an expat from the Indian state of Kerala, is the secretary of Qatar Hockey Federation since its inception in 2009. He narrates the turbulent life the sport of hockey has lived in the country, “People here talked about hockey being played in the schools back in 60s and 70s but the sport had virtually disappeared in Qatar by the end of the 70s. A rebirth of sort was witnessed in early 80s. Enthusiasm was there despite the lack of playing facilities. As many as 10-eleven a side- teams were active but a solitary hockey ground, in capital Doha, meant they often had to wait for their turn. The names of clubs such as Pakistan Wanderers, Sialkot Wanderers, Indian Goans, UK Tigers, etc. depict their mainly expat compositions.”

But hockey in Qatar again sank into oblivion in the late 80s as the only ground was taken away to develop a park. Only a few real enthusiasts were seen wielding the sticks on a couple of handball courts but the club or team game was nowhere to be seen. This dormant period lasted a very long time. It took the efforts of Mr Nazer himself to revive the sport. “In 2004, I selected a car park as the hockey pitch where I assembled a group of about 15 boys including my own to play the game. After a while, the squad shifted to a handball court before moving to a mini football ground.”

Action from a Division 1 encounter
Action from a Division 1 encounter

The catalyst that changed it for good was the Doha 2006 Asiad. Hockey being a permanent part of the Asiad since 1958, the Qatar Olympic Committee had to create a proper international playing facility. An artificial turf was laid in the Al Rayyan Sports Club next to the soccer stadium and the hockey ties in the Asian games involving India and Pakistan drew big crowds. Still, clouds again hovered over hockey. Not a year had passed and there were talks about removing the artificial hockey pitch from the Al Rayyan club.

Asian Champions Trophy -India & Pakistan line up before the final
Asian Champions Trophy -India & Pakistan line up before the final

“We made a request to the QOC, tells Mr Nazer, “Hockey is a new sport in the country and should be given a chance to develop”. The national Olympic committee agreed to retain the turf.” The real boost to the sport came via the office of a person no less than the ruler of the kingdom. Yes, in 2007, H.R.H. Hammad bin Khalifa Al Thani issued a directive which implied, “Why not hockey?” That changed everything. The king also asked the QOC to launch a hockey league in the country.

Mr Nazer assumes it was probably Sultan Azlan Shah who suggested the Qatari ruler to put hockey on strong footing in his country, “Our king had just returned from a visit to Malaysia when he expressed this desire about hockey. The league was duly started with four teams: Pakistan HC, Wanderers HC (mainly Indians), Doha HC (mainly West Europeans) and Gateway (a motley collection). Next, we wanted to provide some international action at home. An Indian/Pakistani tie at any level is bound to infuse great interest in Qatar.”

Asian Champions Trophy Final-Pakistan captain Imran receiving trophy
Asian Champions Trophy Final-Pakistan captain Imran receiving trophy

Two matches were arranged between the Pakistan International Airlines and the Air India. Both the teams were studded with a number of international stars and the games were attended by crowds of about 4,000; despite almost no publicity. First day, the Pakistani ambassador was the chief guest and for the next match it was the Indian ambassador. First encounter saw Indian school children’s band performing before the start and during the interval while the Pakistani kids displayed their talent the following day. “The huge success of this venture meant the QOC straight away doubled our grant and also promised more facilities.”

2009 was the landmark year in the gulf country’s hockey as the Qatar Hockey Federation was formed with Hassan Al Qadi, a Qatari, as the president and Mohamed Abdul Nazer, the secretary general.These two along with three other members constituted the five member executive committee. “The ball was now in our court. The QHF arranged a 2-match test series between Pakistan and Holland- first full international games in the country. The spectators numbering around 6,000 made the stadium look tiny; the series shocked Doha. “The success story spread and next year, the 2010 World Cup bound England hockey team had their preparatory camp here.”

Asian Champions Trophy Final-Goal Mouth Action
Asian Champions Trophy Final-Goal Mouth Action

Then there was the big challenge of raising the national team. In 2011, the QHF acquired the services of legendary Shahbaz Ahmed, the greatest hockey player of the 90s and another great Pakistani Tahir Zaman (also a 1994 World Cup winner). Talented lads were brought from Pakistan as well as India and Malaysia. Abdul Nazer himself was the first coach. Soon they acquired the services of Malaysian Shaiful Azli, a veteran of more than 150 internationals and the 2002 Asian games bronze medallist. He is presently assisted by the Egyptian Majid.

“The year just passed was really memorable and many of our cherished dreams got materialized. The national team was ready. We first tested our boys against Al Zooma, a top club of Sudan. Convincing wins in both the fixtures encouraged us and we thought of pitting the Qatari team against some national team. Fellow gulf country Oman has a long hockey history. They have competed in the Asian games and are ranked seventh in the continent. A two test home series titled the first gulf cup was arranged. 27 March 2013 would definitely go down as a historic day in the Qatari hockey as the national side lined up for the first ever international match. Our side was definitely the underdog and lost both the tests 2-4 but Qatar surprised everyone as they led at the half time in both the games.”

On the sidelines of the gulf cup, the former Pakistan captain Tahir Zaman conducted an FIH grade-2 course for the coaches. Next, a five test series was played against Brazil. 13th April turned out to be another good day as Qatar achieved their first ever international victory beating the favourites South Americans 3-2 in the first test. The victory was no fluke as the hosts pocketed the series three matches to one. Qatar had arrived on the international scene.

Asian Champions Trophy Final- both the sides had great support
Asian Champions Trophy Final- both the sides had great support

The dynamic QHF didn’t remain contended. They succeeded in getting the hosting rights to the FIH’s inaugural World League- with a format similar to the Davis Cup of tennis. The Qatar leg, staged from November 27 to December 2, had five teams in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman plus the hosts. Again, the baby of the international hockey performed beyond expectations, finishing second to Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the failure of the QHF to submit the documents of some of their players in time led to their results being declared unofficial. However, this disqualification won’t stop them from playing in any other tournaments in future.

Aiming for 1000 feet- school kids get coaching
Aiming for 1000 feet- school kids get coaching

Kelly Fairweather, the CEO of FIH, visited Doha and had talks with the officials of QHF- a recognition of Qatar’s growing stature in the world of hockey. The end of the remarkable year saw the staging of the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy with the top six teams of the continent competing. The tournament was a huge success. Indians and Pakistanis turned up in large numbers especially for the two Indo/Pak ties, the league one and the final. In fact, the final, easily the biggest hockey fixture in the history of the country saw fans of the two arch rivals scrambling for the tickets and reportedly some paid 500 riyals to buy tickets with face value of only 10. The organisers had erected temporary stands to increase the seating capacity to more than 5,000 but even that proved insufficient. The spectators stood along the boundary of the sidelines while numerous tried to catch the action from the adjoining soccer stadium. Approximately 7,000 fans raising loud slogans made it an electric atmosphere and were duly treated to an excellent nerve wrecking encounter with Pakistan finally prevailing 5-4. It was heartening to see hundreds of local Qataris also enjoying the spectacle in the stadium.

There were steps forward in many directions. The Qatari league completed its fifth season and has now expanded to 12 teams. They compete in two divisions with six in each tier with two team relegation and promotion at the end of the season. One of the clubs, the Doha HC has three teams and interestingly one of them also has women players who play as part of the mix team.

Qatari national team celebrates a goal
Qatari national team celebrates a goal

The Johor hockey association team managed by Qatar’s national team coach, Malaysian Shaiful Azli with as many as seven national team players won the Presidents Cup in Malaysia defeating their first division champions Armed Forces in the final. A Qatari national team player Savio Nayak appeared in the German hockey league this year.

As for the future: The QHF has already unveiled plans to have a new stadium. Negotiations had been going on with the Qatar Olympic Committee for last few years. The tremendous success of the Asian Champions Trophy made the QOC give the go ahead for a 5,000-capacity facility to be built and a plot has been allocated in the Industrial Area of Doha. With the entire Al Rayyan Stadium set to undergo extension for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the earlier plans of QOC to renovate the already existing facilities have been put on the hold.

One of the biggest challenges facing Qatari hockey is to get more locals play the game. Only two Qataris wore the national shirt and just seven figured in the league 1 this year. There are many impeding factors. The small local population is one. Then affluence means almost every lad drives the latest model car once he gets the driving license, and boulevards take preference over the sports field. Other sports also face the same scenario- many who start don’t persist. The National Olympic Committee is investing a lot and even pays the boys to play sport.
Despite all this, the QHF is making all the efforts to attract more youngsters to hockey. Foremost is the project ‘Aiming for 1,000-feet’. It aims at distributing equipment to schools, sending FIH trained coaches and providing opportunity for students to utilize the hockey facilities at the Al Rayyan.

For the national team, the aims are high. They have been set an ambitious but achievable target- Road to Incheon. Considering the 2012 performance graph of the Qatari team, qualifying for the 2014 Asian Games in the South Korean city of Incheon is a very realistic objective.

The country’s hockey saga is really remarkable. The rapid strides made in the year gone-by in various spheres have put the tiny gulf nation on the map of the world hockey.

If the FIH had some sort of a yearly award for “The country making the greatest overall progress,” Qatar would have been the prime candidate for the year 2012.

Qatar – Potential Gold Mine for Hockey

Qatar is now a bona fide member of the international hockey playing fraternity and has also hosted high profile events. Qatari hockey has already started looking beyond.

The QHF plans to initiate and host two regional tournaments. The bilateral two test series played here last year between Qatar and Oman was titled the Gulf Cup. Now the federation wants to stage a ‘real’ Gulf Cup. To be held sometime late in 2013, this Gulf Cup would have teams from Qatar, Oman and UAE, the three regional countries who already have national sides. In addition, requests are being made to two resourceful gulf countries, Kuwait and Bahrain, to raise national hockey teams as they too have large expat communities from Indian and Pakistan as well as active hockey clubs. That means as many as five nations could be competing for the title of the Gulf Champions.

Discussions are also in progress to have the West Asia Cup in Qatar figuring the four countries of the region already active on the international scene: Oman, UAE, Qatar and Iran. That would make Qatar the hub of hockey in this part of the world.

But the highly ambitious QHF has loftier goals, and desires to do something revolutionary-   which could stun the world of hockey. Spadework is on for an Arab Hockey League on the pattern somewhat similar to cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League). The proposed six team tournament won’t be confined to Qatar only as it envisages two sides each in Qatar, UAE and Oman. The team composition is what that would make the league really special. The local talent would form only one third of the squad with the remaining two thirds composed of international stars. Half of those overseas players would be big names of the world hockey while the rest chosen from the emerging juniors on the international horizon. The suggested selection process has another interesting aspect. The international players, seniors as well as juniors, in any team would all be from two countries. For instance, a Qatari team could have only German and Indian players apart from the locals. Likewise, Dutch and Pakistani players could form two thirds of an Omani side in this Arab Hockey League.

Qatar, world’s richest country, still remains largely an untapped market for international sports. The resourceful sponsors have been investing a lot in the local sports. A venture of the proportions of an Arab Hockey League that promises to give any mega business house such as the Qatar Petroleum a big international exposure would be hard to resist.

The whole idea seems a bit far-fetched but how many of us had ever thought of the tiny nation winning the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

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