The Qatari Game - Domestic Leagues and Cup Competitions
Football was a late arrival to the State of Qatar, only making an appearance after the discovery of oil and alongside the arrival of expatriate workers in the late 1940s. However, locals quickly picked up the new sport and made it their own. Clubs began popping up across the nation; the first, founded in 1950, still survives today. Leagues between workers and locals became commonplace, and a football stadium, Doha Stadium, was built to facilitate matches and to support the growing fan base.
In 1960, the nation's new hobby was given an official steer with the founding of the Qatar Football Association (QFA). Under the QFA, a domestic league system was established for first and second division teams, and more recently, under-23s. During the 70s, QFA gained affiliation with FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the West Asian Football Confederation (WAFF). In time, teams and leagues for women, children, the community, and academic sectors also formed and gave the sport greater prominence.
On a global scale, the national team has won and hosted some significant games and tournaments since the 1970s and, in particular, during the last two decades. And locally, teams have been successful at regional and continental levels. The crowning glory of Qatar's football story to date, though, was winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar is the first Middle Eastern country to be awarded the honour, and, in football terms, there is no higher honour.
Since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup hosting rights, the world has heard all about this tiny nation and its progress towards 2022 - multi-million-pound developments including eight new stadiums, new training and sports facilities, new transport networks, hotels and attractions; the national team's success in becoming Asian Champions and their pre-2022 tournament friendlies across the world; and, the country's hosting capabilities at the FIFA Club World Cup 2019 and 2020, the AFC Asian Champions League 2020, all during the COVID-19 pandemic. But how much do we know about the country's domestic football scene?
Domestic Football in Qatar
Before the creation of the QFA and the nation's first league in 1963, the Qatar Stars League (QSL), football games and cups were organised somewhat haphazardly. However, since 1963 (officially 1972), Qatar's football seasons and cups have been played out and governed according to standard football rules and regulations.
Today, the Qatar Stars League, also known as the QNB Stars League due to sponsorship, is the highest professional league in Qatari football. The league currently features twelve top-tier clubs - Al Ahli, Al Arabi, Al Duhail, Al Gharafa, Al Kharaitiyat, Al Khor, Al Rayyan, Al Sailiya, Al Wakrah, Qatar SC, Umm Salal, and, the leagues most successful team, Al Sadd. The league is played in a round-robin format with both home and away fixtures. Each season, the lowest placed QSL team is automatically relegated to Qatar's Second Division League (again due to sponsorship, known as the Qatargas League); the highest placed second-tier team is promoted to the QSL. A play-off between the 11th placed QSL squad and the 2nd place Qatargas team also takes place to contest the right to play in the QSL in the following season.
The Qatargas League, also established in 1963, currently consists of eight teams that play out the season in a triple-round-robin format. Qatargas also sponsors an under-23s league competition. Twelve teams, first division youth teams, contest the competition in a double round-robin format. The league was set up to improve Qatar's player base for the national team by preparing young talent for top-flight football.
The QFA also organises, in conjunction with some of Qatar's major sports and development committees, several amateur football leagues:
- The Qatar Amateur League (QAL) - founded in 2013, the QAL was created to provide an official, competitive stage for local amateur football teams, from social, corporate and government sectors, to integrate and interact. The number of teams varies year on year, and the league is played in a single round-robin format.
- The University League - established in 2013 by the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy (the body responsible for delivering the 2022 World Cup) and organised by the QFA and development group Qatar Foundation, the league is a knockout tournament for university and college students. The league was initiated to provide students with a high-quality platform for developing football skills.
- The School League - established in 2013, the School League is contested via a knockout tournament. In conjunction with Qatar's School Sports Association, the league was designed to encourage and increase young people's involvement in sports. In particular, legitimately organised sports - official QFA referees officiate each game, adding to the tournament's authenticity.
- The Asian Communities Football Tournament - launched in 2012, the league is contested in a single-leg knockout competition and provides an arena for engaging local communities and encouraging integration.
The QSL also organises an annual community league. Founded by the Supreme Committee in 2016, the Qatar Community Football League currently supports four adult divisions and four youth divisions (two boys and two girls leagues).
Under the QFA and QSL, member clubs can participate in four annual domestic cup competitions, the Emir Cup, the Sheikh Jassim Cup, the Qatar Cup, and the Ooredoo Cup. On top of the continental silverware available each year, winning multiple cups per season is a significant achievement for any domestic squad.
The Emir Cup - the biggest football tournament in Qatar the Emir Cup was founded in 1972. Played out by all first and second division teams, the competition is contested via a knockout system. Al Sadd Football Club is the current titleholder, having won the 2020 edition of the tournament. The club is also the event's record holder, having lifted the Cup a total of seventeen times.
The Sheikh Jassim Cup - inaugurated in 1977, the annual super cup competition is held as the season's opening event. Contested by the previous season's winners of the Qatar Stars League and the Emir Cup, the competition is a straight head-to-head match. The 2020/21 Cup will see Al Duhail Sports Club (QSL winner 2019/20) and Al Sadd Football Club (Emir Cup 2020 winner) battle for the title. Al Sadd is the Cup's most successful club, having won the event fifteen times to date.
The Qatar Cup - previously the Qatar Crown Prince Cup until 2013, the Qatar Cup was established in 1994. Designed as a super cup competition, the event invites the top four QSL teams to face one another in a straight knockout tournament at the end of the season. Current 2021 champions Al Sadd is the Cup's most prolific winner; the club has won the event a total of eight times.
The Ooredoo Cup - founded in 2009, the Qatari Stars Cup, or Ooredoo Cup for sponsorship reasons, is a relative newcomer to the calendar of the annual competitions. The knockout competition involves the First Division teams only and follows a round-robin league structure, with teams split into two groups. The idea behind the Cup's creation is to provide squads with more competitive games during the season. Teams may use first-team players, under-23s and under-19s, allowing many to build on their competitive experience. Al Sadd is the current Cup champion, though Al Gharrafa has won the event on most occasions.
Domestic teams may also, dependent on qualification, participate in the annual continental competitions, the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Champions League and Asian Cup, and the GCC Champions League.
A Bright Future
Qatar's domestic football has steadily developed over the years in line with the QFA's vision and, of course, the country's National Vision and plans as host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup. More people now play football across the nation than ever before and from all social groups. There are also more opportunities for playing sport, especially football, as clubs and academies and training facilities spring up - not just for elite sportspersons but for everyone. Domestic football at all levels in Qatar is thriving in 2021.
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