Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Lewandowski are expected to feature in the 2022 FIFA World Cup which will be hosted by Qatar. Yet, the upcoming soccer event is not be the first to bring an accumulation of world-class internationals to the middle-eastern country. It has happened before. And it was the Q-League (now called Qatar Stars League) in the summer of 2003 that unexpectedly attracted stars from top European leagues including the likes of Batistuta, Guardiola, Caniggia, Effenberg, Hierro, Leboeuf and many others.

How it happened

Unlike to other arab countries in the region (see Saudi Arabia, UAE) the Q-League had not been a popular destination for established soccer players in their last playing years. However, all changed in the summer of 2003 when the Qatari Federation – financially aided by the Qatar Olympic Committe- splashed out $100 million on the league’s development. The goal was clear: to immediatley attract world-famed soccer stars to the league for the 2003-04 season. Thus, a sum of $10 million was allocated to each of the 10 clubs to sign high-profile foreign players. The experiment was extremely successful and soon the first division was flooded by players who had even starred in World Cups in previous years.

Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola shows his support to Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup.
Soccer in Qatar before 2003

The first official season was played in 1972-73, followed by three unofficial tournaments in the mid-1960s. There was a no promotion-relegation system until 1995 and with the exception of the 1981-1989 period. On April 1989, Al Sadd became the first Qatari team to reach and win the Asian Champions Cup (now rebranded as AFC Champions League) fielding a fully-arab squad without foreign players.

In 1994 the Qatari Federation intoduced a new match rule meaning that a draw would be followed by a penalty shoot-out. Just like in the MLS during the 1990s. The rule proved unpopular and was abolished at the end of the 1994-95 season. A few months earlier on 29 January 1995, Al Arabi had become the second Qatari club to play in the the Asian Champions Cup final, but ended the match on the losing side.

Until the league’s 2003 revamp Al Sadd was the most successful club in the country,. The club from Doha had won 9 championships which was a record at the time. Not much has really changed since then in terms of the most decorated Qatari club as Al Sadd remain the record holder with 16 titles.

The biggest names that had appearred in the league before 2003 were undoubtedly Romario and  Rabah Madjer. The Algerian was one of Porto’s scorers in their 1987 winning European Cup final against Bayern Munich. Madjer who had also won the 1987 Intercontinental Cup and the 1990 Copa Africa arrived in Qatar in 1991, aged 33, and played one season before retiring. He also grabbed the topscorer award. Romario who had signed a three-month contract with Al Sadd worth US$1.5 million in February 2003, played only 3 league games without scoring a goal.

Romario as Al Sadd’s captain in 2003.

The 2003-04 ”marquee” players

Each of the league’s 10 clubs could sign up to 4 foreign players with Al-Ahly, Al-Arabi, Qatar SC, Al-Rayyan and Al Sadd attracting probably the most distinguished ones.

Al Ahly (Pepe (BRA)): Josep Guardiola (ESP – from Brescia), Thiago Oliveira Santos (BRA), Carlos Morais (Cape Verde), José (Cape Verde)
Al Arabi (Cabralzinho (BRA)): Gabriel Batistuta (ARG – from Inter Milan), Stefan Effenberg (GER – from Wolfsburg), Mohamed Barakat (EGY – from Al-Ahly Jeddah), Noureddine Darouiche (ALG)
Al Ittihad Doha (Walter Meeuws (BEL)): Djamel Belmadi (ALG – from Marseille), Pius N’Diefi (CMR – from Sedan), Amaral (BRA – from Grêmio), Kaba Diawara (FRA – from Paris St.Germain)
Al Khor (Renê Simões (BRA)): Rachid Rokki (MOR), Paulo (BRA), Osvaldo De Souza (BRA – from Al-Ittihad Doha), Pascal Nouma (FRA – from Besiktas)
Qatar SC Doha (Dzemaludin Musovic (BIH)): Claudio Caniggia (ARG – from Glasgow Rangers), Radhi Shnishel (IRQ), Fabrice Akwa (ANG), Hicham Aboucherouane (Morocco, from Raja Casablanca)
Al Rayyan (Jean Castaneda (FRA)): Fernando Hierro (ESP – from Real Madrid), Mario Basler (GER – from Kaisarslautern), Ali Benarbia (ALG – from Manchester City), Bouchaib El-Moubarki (MOR – from Al-Ahly (Jeddah))
Al Sadd (Luka Peruzovic (CRO)): Frank Leboeuf (FRA – from Marseille), Youssef Chippo (MOR – from Coventry City), Carlos Tenorio (ECU – from Al Nasr Riyad) Abdulkader Keita (SEN)
Al Shamal (Robert Mullier (SWI)): Razzaq Farhan (IRQ – from Al-Khaleej), Ahmed Abdul-Jabar (IRQ), Haidar Mahmoud (IRQ), Abdelhaq Ben Bella (MOR)
Al Sailiya (Paulo Campos (BRA)): Titi Camara (GUI – on loan from West Ham, Nov.2003), Bruno Cazrin (BRA), Assad Mustafa (Sudan), David Mazzoncini (FRA)
Al Wakra (Dzemal Hadziabdic (BIH)): Soumah Othman (FRA), Rock Buskapa (Congo – from Al Nasr Riyad), Lahcen Abrami (MOR – from Wydad Casablanca), Julio César Baldivieso (BOL – from Aurora, Oct.2003)

*In brackets: nationality and players’ previous clubs during the 2002-03 season. In bold: players who came from or previously played in top European leagues.

Like a ”Little World Cup”

Al Sadd coached by Croatian Luka Peruzovic won the title with ease leaving Qatar SC behind by 8 points. Al Arabi finished third, mostly thanks to Gabriel Batistuta‘s 25 goals. The Argentine who came in from Inter Milan won the topscorer award, while prolific defender Fernando Hierro‘s scored the 2nd of the three goals that gave Al Rayan the victory in the Qatar Cup final. Hierro had previously won the 1998, 2000 and 2002 Champions League with Real Madrid. He was still a regular in his final season at Madrid, lifting the La Liga as the team’s captain.

German midfielder Stefan Effenberg was the man who almost single-handedly guided Bayern Munich to the 2001 Champions League glory against Valencia. He finished his successful career in Qatar with Al Arabi, in a playmaking role behind Batistuta. The latter had led Argentina’s 2002 World Cup front line along with Cladio Caniggia, Maradona’s close friend and one of the fiew players who played for both Boca Juniors and River Plate. Caniggia helped Qatar SC reach the 2004 Cup final, which was his carrer’s last game. Pep Guardiola, widely considered as one of the greatest managers of all time, chose to sign for Al Ahly Doha in 2003, leaving Brescia where he played under Carlo Mazzone and with Roberto Baggio.

Batistuta and Effenberg played for Al Arabi in the 2003-04 season.

Other famous foreign internationals who signed for Qatari clubs in the summer of 2003 were Algerian Djamel Belmadi and Frank Leboeuf from Olympique Marseille (teammates with Didie Drogba), Moroccan Youssef Chippo from Coventry City, Algerian wizard Ali Benarbia from Manchester City, French striker Kaba Diawara from PSG, his fellow countryman Pascal Nouma from Besiktas, Parma’s former player, Brazilian midfielder Amaral and experienced winger Mario Basler from Kaizerslautern.

Special mention to two South Americans: Ecuadorian Carlos Tenorio who came to Qatar at the age of 24 and played for 6 seasons and Julio Baldivieso, the playmaker who represented Bolivia 85 times from 1991 until 2005.