It’s the opening day of the Qatari Stars League, Al Sadd are away to recently promoted Al-Masaimeer S C.
With twelve, minutes gone, Lee Jung-Soo rises high to head home a free kick and celebrates with the player who assisted him. Number six, Xavi Hernandez.
Al Sadd win the game comfortably, not only a great start to the season, but a great start to life in Qatar for Xavi.
Xavi Hernandez Creus epitomised the tiki-taka style of play which brought Spain and Barcelona so much success during the late 2000s and early 2010s.
his style of play, finding space and passing the ball on with minimum touches, suited a crop of players at Barcelona, not particularly strong players but nimble and skilful enough to “pass opponents to death”.
If a team is chasing the ball all game, then tiredness will certainly come into effect. Xavi was also at the heart of the Spanish midfield in their greatest ever period, winning two European Championships and a World Cup.
At Euro 2012, he broke the record for most attempted and completed passes against the Republic of Ireland, with 136 attempted and 127 completed.
A miplaced Xavi pass became a collector’s item. It was fitting that the Spanish maestro ended his time with a trophy; his fourth Champions League title in a win against Juventus in Berlin.
In May of this year, Xavi announced a three year deal with Al Sadd with a wage of just over seven million pounds a year. He had offers from the MLS, and was also tempted by a contract extension with Barcelona, but chose Qatar.
The Terrassa born midfielder wasn’t the first player to swap La Liga with the Qatari Stars League. Raul, the Real Madrid legend guided Al Sadd to their first league title in five years in his first season, scoring nine goals in the process.
Former Alaves, Celta Vigo and Mallorca winger Nene had a spell with Al Garafa, and the once hotly tipped Nilmar played for both Al Rayan and El Jaish, the list goes on. What made these players come to Qatar, apart from the immense sums of money thrown at them, as strange as it sounds, is the football.
The heat means a slow, passing game, and the quality of football, albeit not great, is on the up. In the AFC Champions League, Asia and Oceania’s equivalent to Europe’s most prestigious club competition, Qatari clubs have been gradually improving.
From 2003 to 2008, Al Sadd were the only Qatari Stars League team to get out of the group phase, in 2009 however, Umm Salal reached the semi finals.
Al-Rayyan based club Al Gharafa reached the quarter finals a year later and in 2011 Al-Sadd won the tournament with ex-Portsmouth left back Nadir Belhadj scoring the winner after the contest against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors went to penalties.
With a World Cup on the distant horizon (as it stands), facilities are to a certain standard in Qatar, Frank De Boer once compared the pitches to a snooker table.
Players like Xavi and Raul have come to see out their careers, but high profile players have been making the trip east, closer to the peak of their powers; former Wolfsburg Algerian international Karim Ziani went to El Jaish aged 29, Chico Flores arrived at Leik and Asomoah Gyan went straight from Sunderland in the Premier League to Al Ain to smash in 90 goals in 76 games.
Admittedly large amounts of money was the deciding factor in these players moving to the West Asia (at one point Gyan was earning 250K a week at Al Ain), but the quality of the league will increase.
Every time you glance at the team rosters you recognise a forgotten name; Ashkan Dejageh, Vladimir Weiss, Jérémie Aliadière.
The only thing stopping more names coming is the fact that Stars League Clubs can only have four registered professional players.
If one thing is for certain, this trend will continue, not only of established players entering the league but also of somewhat out casted players who want another shot at glory to go with the money.
A week after his debut, Xavi’s Al Sadd side are again away, this time against fellow title challengers Umm Salal SC. Xavi rolls back the years as he strokes home his first goal for Al Sadd and celebrates with a finger aloft.
A barren Suheim bin Hamad Stadium is hardly Camp Nou, and Umm Salal do equalize late on, but the few travelling fans must feel happy with the domination Al Sadd had in terms of possession, 64 percent to be exact, Spain’s Mini Coupe still has some charge left on that Sat-Nav.