The Emir Cup is the biggest football tournament in Qatar.

March 21, 2021

70 Years of Football Fever

How football evolved in Qatar

Football is the most popular sport on the planet. It’s played by millions of people in hundreds of countries. Claims for originating the game are many-fold, but it is widely recognised that the modern game has evolved over the last 200 years. For Qatar, the country’s football journey began a little over 70 years ago. However, in that short time, they have become prominent on the international football scene. In 2022, Qatar will host one of the most coveted sporting events - the FIFA Football World Cup. The preparations Qatar have undertaken for this mega-event are phenomenal and have taken years to complete. The country is rightly proud of the journey they have taken to becoming the first World Cup hosts in the Middle East, and of their ability to showcase the nation to the world.

Somewhere a long time ago, someone inflated an animal’s bladder and made a ball. The ball was a success, and soon people were throwing it and kicking it around for fun. The bladder was then covered in pieces of leather, making it stronger and more durable. Then at some point, people got together and made the kicking and throwing of the ball into a game, and so football was invented.
The actual origin of the game is not known, though many countries claim credit for it. It is unlikely that only one culture discovered balls and ball games. Balls have been found in Egyptian tombs and on pieces of ancient Chinese art. A version of modern football is even believed to have been played in Greece and Rome in early Olympic games.
However, the origins of modern football are generally accepted to be found in England. In medieval times, around 1500 CE, a game known as folk football was played by opposing teams, in villages and towns. Anyone could join in; there were no rules. The idea was to capture the ball and, by whatever means, get the ball to the opponent’s end of the town. These games became huge social events, though were often violent and ended up in riots. So gradually, they became less popular and, in some places, were declared illegal.
Over the years a mini version of folk football began to be played in public schools across the country. This game was played on a pitch with goals and two opposing teams. The ball could be carried, thrown or kicked; rough whole body tackling was considered acceptable.
This game became very popular, and soon schools formed teams and clubs. Schools across the country began playing matches against each other. This inter-school play meant that rules were required to control play. And, in 1848, Cambridge University introduced the Cambridge Rules, which not only defined specific rules of play but introduced ranking for teams. Football clubs started to appear outside of schools.
From this point on, things moved along fairly quickly. The Football Association (FA) was formed in 1863. The FA had eleven member clubs who agreed on a set of rules. The rules banned the handling of the ball. This lead to a split - football and rugby went on to become different types of ball games. By the end of the century, there were nearly 150 clubs in the FA. Clubs were organised into divisions and played standardised rules. The first Football Association Cup had been played. And, footballers were regarded as professional, and so received wages.
The British style of football caught on, and countries in Europe and South America started forming clubs and football leagues. In 1904, The International Federation of Football (Fédération Internationale de Football Association – FIFA) was formed in Paris. FIFA became, and remains, the governing body for football around the World.
Wherever and however the game started, it is now played by some 265 million men, women and children in around 211 countries (so there are a lot of people in the world who actually understand the infamous offside rule!).
FIFA has organised World football into six confederations – Asia, Africa, Europe, North and Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania and South America. Every four years, FIFA organises a World Cup competition with the best teams from each confederation playing to find the best team in the World.
In 2022, Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup competition.

Image: Pakon Amonstian/

The Early Years

It is fair to say that Qatar was not involved in the invention and development of the game of football. Qatar has only been an independent country since 1971. However, following the discovery of oil reserves, people flocked into the country to work, and they brought football with them.

Enthusiasm for the game was high and since the 1950s, and in the following decades right up to today, football has become a high profile part of Qatar’s national ambitions. The crowning achievement being the hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Their journey to 2022 has many memorable milestones:

  • The first football stadium, Doha Stadium, was built in the 1950s. It was the only stadium in the region with a grass pitch. Competitive games were played there from the early 1950s, but it was officially opened in 1962. It is still in use today.
  • The first national football club, Al Ahli SC, was founded in 1950 under the name of Al Najah SC. Based in Doha it is Qatar’s oldest sports club. The headquarters of the club was in a residential property, which was rented for the princely sum of 70 Indian Rupees per month (officially the Gulf Rupee - the currency used by Gulf countries at that time).
  • The Qatar Football Association (QFA) was established in 1960 and the first league season matches were played in 1963/64. The QFA later became fully affiliated with FIFA (1970), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF). The QFA is the governing body for football in Qatar. It is responsible for overseeing the amateur and professional game and provides sanctions for competitive matches at all levels.
  • Famous Brazilian football star Pelé came to Qatar in 1973 for a friendly match. His legendary Santos side played against Qatar’s Al Ahli SC at Doha Stadium. The story is that Pelé was given his first-ever yellow card for an offence in this match. Pelé later backed Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.
  • In the 1970s, the national team moved to a new stadium, Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium, which had a capacity of 12,000 seats.
  • Over the '70s, ’80s and '90s Qatari teams had numerous encouraging successes. These included hosting the Gulf Cup (1976), defeating Poland, Brazil, England and being runners up in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup in Australia (1981), and hosting the Under-20 FIFA World Cup in Doha (1995).
  • The Gulf Cup win over England was a real highlight in Qatari football. Badr Bilal, a striker with Al Sadd (now a sports analyst), is remembered for the spectacular overhead scissors kick that scored the winning goal.

The growth and successes of football in Qatar has continued into the 21st century. The national team have won and hosted some significant games and tournaments:

  • Winning a gold medal in the Asian Games (2006);
  • Winning the Arabian Gulf Cup (2004 and 2014);
  • Winning the AFC Under-19 Championship (2014);
  • Qualifying for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand (2015) and Poland (2019),
  • Winning the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Championships (2014);
  • Winning the AFC Asian Cup (2019), and;
  • Hosting the 17th and 24th Arabian Gulf Cup (2004/2019), and;
  • Hosting the FIFA Club World Cup 2019.

So, in a comparatively short time, Qatar has become a real player on the international football scene. The pinnacle of their continued success was being selected, in December 2010, to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup - a clear demonstration of how far Qatar has come in the world of football.

Image: Copyright Living 2022

To read more about the Qatar National Team’s story from its inception to becoming today’s continental champions, read our Road to Success article.

The Game Today

Football is now the most popular sport in Qatar. Under the control of the Qatar Football Association (QFA), football teams are arranged into different leagues. The premier league is the QNB Stars League which is followed by the Second Division League, the Qatargas U-23 League and the U-19 League.
In addition to the above, Qatar operates a Futsal League (a variation of association football played on a hard court with two teams of five players) and several other football leagues:

  • The Qatar Amateur League (QAL), which is part of the QFA;
  • The Qatar Community League, established by the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy (the body responsible for managing and delivering the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar);
  • A University League, organised by the Qatar Football Association (QFA) and the Qatar Foundation for Education (QF);
  • A School League, organised by the Qatar Football Association (QFA) in cooperation with the Qatar School Sports Association (QSSA), and;
  • The Qatar Indian Association Champions League, formed through a community grant from the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy.
  • The Qatari Women’s Football Association (QWFA) was created in 2012 and manages the women’s football league.

So, the game of football is available to everyone in Qatar who wants to play. Talent is nurtured at every level, and this is where Doha's Aspire Academy plays its part.
Qatar’s national team has had some major successes. The team comprises players from several different countries, but this will change as homegrown talent is nurtured. There is no better place to nurture players than the Aspire Academy. Established in 2004, the Academy aims to find, develop and educate the best young Qatari athletes, particularly in football. Early results have seen graduates from the Academy involved in some of the country’s most important football successes to date.
Qatar’s influence in football is not just limited to the game either; it has invested in football in a host of sectors around the world. For instance, Qatar Airways sponsors the Spanish club, Barcelona and the Italian football club, AS Roma. Qatar Sports Investments completed a buyout of the French Football Club, Paris Saint Germain in 2011, and is rumoured to be considering a similar approach to the English club Leeds United. Qatar also owns the Belgian club, KAS Eupen and Spanish team, Cultural Leonesa where players from the Aspire Academy can gain experience. There are also home-based investments such as Burrda Sport, which produces customized performance and lifestyle clothing and equipment for international sports teams, clubs and schools.

Image: Ahmed Hamid/

The 2022 World Cup

Being selected to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup has changed Qatar forever. Qatar has become the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup. With this honour comes great expectations, responsibilities, commitments and opportunities. Many thousands of people, including players, support staff, media representatives, visitors and supporters, will flock to the country. Worldwide millions of people will have a window into Qatar and everything that it does.
The hurdles facing Qatar as World Cup hosts have been a hot topic from the moment they announced that they would be bidding. Could such a small country organise and manage such a tournament and have everything in place for 2022? Could football be played in a country where the temperatures can exceed 40oC? Could stadiums be built in time? Could enough power, suitable accommodation, and enough food and water be provided? Could all of this be achieved in an environmentally friendly way? How would the rights of migrant workers, alcohol consumption, women’s rights, sexuality and ethnic differences be managed?
However, Qatar’s bid was accepted, and preparations for the tournament have advanced at an astounding rate ever since.
The dates of the tournament have been changed to November and December to suit the climate in Qatar. Stadiums have been built and renovated using recycled and recyclable materials, and incorporating solar power systems and hi-tech solutions for cooling. The upper levels of some stadiums will be removed and, after the tournament, donated to countries in need of sporting infrastructure. Qatar has also invested heavily in its transportation systems. New and upgraded roads, a metro and tram system will all be in place for 2022, making travel to and from the various stadiums and venues is easy. Construction in all its forms has been carried out by migrant workers who have had their rights, pay and conditions improved. Even air-conditioned safety helmets have been provided. Laws and requirements have been amended or relaxed to ensure that all contenders, supporters and visitors feel welcome and comfortable in Qatar.
So, Qatar has tackled the social, environmental and logistical challenges that hosting the World Cup presented. Qatar will be ready to welcome the world to a successful and memorable World Cup Tournament. It is a testament to this small footballing nation who have come so far in such a short space of time.

Main Image: Ahmed Hamid/

Published: January 09, 2020
Last updated: March 21, 2021
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The Emir Cup is the biggest football tournament in Qatar.