In the previous two instalments of this look into the strange and wonderful world of the summer transfer window we looked at the bizarre transfers of world class players to not so world class clubs (no disrespect intended to Charlton or Waterford United). However, it is time to mix things up, variety being the spice of life and all that.
This week we will look at something more, something bigger. This week we shall cast our minds back to the early 2000s when a rich oil oligarch was stumping up large sums of cash to bring a host of world-class players to a foreign land. Before you jump to conclusions, it was not Monsieur Abramovich in London, no that’s too obvious. This week we will go somewhere that has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons…Qatar.
Yes, with the news of alleged Qatari money buying the 2022 FIFA World Cup nominations emerging again in recent days, it seemed only fitting to cast our minds back to the Qatari League, the Q-League, circa 2003, a time of great excitement and investment in Qatari football.
In 2003, the Qatari League, made up at the time of just ten teams, saw massive backing from then ruler of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Unlike the traditional sugar daddy, al-Thani, in a perhaps rare show of understanding of the importance of equality gave each team $10 million to spend rather than favour one club.
Where did the money come from? Like everything in Qatar the money came from oil, lots and lots of oil. The $10 million was given to each team on one simple condition. Each team had to spend big, get big names and get the world’s attention. Each team complied and in a major way. Remember, this was a time when the world was not yet shocked at the extent of Qatari labour malpractice (or modern day slavery) and we had yet to hear of World Cup bids.
It was a time of optimism and hope for the oil rich nation, with most newspapers at the time waxing lyrical about the new Qatari footballing project (how times change). Oh did I mention it was a time of ludicrous, jaw dropping transfers (lucky for me writing this article eh?).
First up, a transfer of simply unexplainable magnitude. This was a transfer involving Argentina’s all time goalscorer, a man who scored 56 goals internationally. This was a transfer involving a man who had terrorized Italian defences for years and scored goals wherever he went. This was none other than Gabriel Batistuta aka Batigoal.
Yes Batigoal, a man of incredible class and a ridiculous knack for scoring goals finished his loan period at Inter Milan at the end of the 2002/2003 season and traded in sunny Italy for even sunnier Qatar in the summer of 2003. His destination? The not so mighty Al Arabi.
The season prior to Batigoal’s arrival had seen Al Arabi languish in the bottom half of the Q-League, three points from the bottom and a long way from the top of the table, 18 points in fact. Yet thanks to the $10million oil money injection, Al Arabi were able to capture Batigoal by promising him the bulk of the $10million. Although 34 years old when he made the move, Batigoal allegedly pulled in $8million over two years in a league with a maximum of 23 games and a minimum of 18 games a season. Nice work if you can get it.
However, had Batigoal lost his knack? Was that why he was moving to Qatar? Batigoal responded to critics emphatically. He helped propel Al Arabi to 3rd and 5th in the League during his time there, banging in 25 goals in 21 games and winning the Golden Boot. They did call him Batigoal for a reason.
But Batigoal was just the tip of the iceberg. The $10 million was put to good use by the rest of the League. The De Boer brothers, Ronald and Frank, who once classed the hallowed grounds of the Nou Camp, both plied their trade with Al-Rayyan and then Al-Shamal, spending two seasons in Qatar. F
French World Cup Winner Frank Leboeuf plied his trade with Al Sadd. We also had a certain Pep Guardiola who according to some reports (which as a Leeds fan I’m choosing to believe) turned down Manchester United to don the green and white hoops of Qatar’s very own Al-Ahli. These foreign stars were taking in millions along with complementary furnished villas and chauffeur-driven limousines at a time when most local players in Qatar were earning about $14,000 a year and FIFA classified most of the Q-League teams as semi-professional.
At least Qatar has improved its labour standards since then…
By 2006, the Q-League resembled a team sheet from the ’90s. By that time, Ibrahim Ba, Jay-Jay Okocha, Tony Popovic and Fernando Hierro had all passed through the League. The League for a brief period was a retirement ground for some of football’s greatest names. And lest we forget that although investment in foreign players has dwindled in the Q-League, Spanish legend Raul is currently playing for Leboeuf’s former team. Al Sadd.
So what lessons can be drawn from this time of big names and even bigger contracts in Qatar? First and most obvious is that money talks. Players like Batistuta and the De Boer brothers made vast sums of money and in the words of one local journalist lived “the life of kings in the desert.”
If recent events turn out to be true, money still talks in football…but hey this is hardly news to anyone.
Secondly, we can say that Qatar’s rebranding that culminated in being awarded the 2022 World Cup has been a long time in the making, at least a decade. Since 2003, the Q-League has looked inward at local talent and poaching African players, but they do still draw in superstars. At the time of writing, Xavi, yes Xavi is apparently drawing close to a move to Al Arabi.
Finally and most importantly what all of this teaches us that a rich sugar daddy, or oil daddy as the case may be, makes the summer transfer window a time of footballing madness.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.