“You know Mohamed Farah?” said Jassim, referring to the distance runner. “He is Somalian, yes? But he got the British passport and got good results in the Olympiad.”
The issue is more sensitive, though, in soccer. As Qatar has waited for its Aspire graduates to fill its national team rosters, its soccer association for years relied on a controversial policy of naturalizations to fill the gaps. Even during this World Cup qualification cycle, Qatar’s roster included players born in Brazil, Uruguay, France and Guinea.
Jorge Fossati, a Uruguayan coach who took charge of the national team, threatened to quit last year after it was reported that Qatar’s soccer federation might consider phasing out naturalized players. (He stayed, then resigned suddenly six months later.) After Fossati’s departure, Qatar’s last two matches in World Cup qualification featured more native-born players; the team that played China in the final Russia 2018 qualification match last month contained eight Qataris who were born or raised in the country.
“Anyone who gets a Qatar passport, we’ll respect him,” Jassim said. “But we can talk about why are we taking players who are not quality? This is why the fans are angry.”
“They have talent, they are technical,” Xavi Hernández says of his Qatari teammates at Al Sadd, the Qatar Stars League club he has played for since 2015. “The big difference is, tactically, they don’t know how we attack, how we defend. That is the big difference. Conceptuality. On the field.”
Xavi’s presence here, too, is part of the broader Qatari soccer development plan. A World Cup champion with Spain and a Champions League winner with Barcelona, Xavi said he was ready to leave La Liga two years ago, feeling he could no longer play at the highest level. So he moved to Qatar, in part because of the money, but also to train as a coach.
Credit Olya Morvan for The New York Times
But part of Xavi’s job, as an experienced professional with a glittering résumé, is to help promote Qatar 2022, and to nurture the next generation of domestic players.
“It is not easy because it is a very small country,” he said. “I think we have only 6,000 licensed players.” He singled out several with potential, including two Aspire graduates, Akram Afif and Ahmed Yasser, who now play in Europe. Each plays for a Qatari-controlled club, Afif at K.A.S. Eupen in Belgium and Yasser at Cultural Leonesa in Spain’s second division.
That, too, is part of Qatar’s long-range plan. Aspire bought the clubs as part of its strategy to set up a soccer pipeline that would include Qatari players, and expose the best of them to better competition, first at home and then abroad.
But that weekend, only a few hundred supporters turned up at Al Sadd’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium to see Xavi turn a match around. His two defense-splitting passes led to two goals, and to Al Sadd’s 2-1 victory over Al-Gharafa.