In the Shadow of the FIFA World Cup: Qatar’s “Other” Favorite Sport
Early on Friday mornings in Doha, whilst most people are asleep, hundreds—possibly thousands—of amateur sportsmen grab their equipment and head out. Before the sun is too high and the temperature too hot, they coalesce on open ground, form teams, and play their favorite sport. Some of these games are informal knockabouts with friends. Other matches are part of larger tournaments or leagues. To drive around Doha at this time is to experience shuttered businesses and quiet roads, but also patches of free space teeming with excitement and noise.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the sport in question is football. After all, in just over three months’ time, Qatar will be hosting the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. But despite Qatar being the backdrop for the world’s largest football tournament, the sport that arguably more people play involves a smaller ball and bat.
It is hard to overstate the popularity of cricket in Qatar. The game is played and watched almost exclusively by people of South Asian heritage, but because migrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh make up the largest proportion of the population in the country—approximately 1.8 million or 55% of the population—their most popular sport has also become Qatar’s.
Despite the number of people who play and watch the game, and in contrast to the huge attention bestowed by the government on football, cricket in Qatar is a small-scale affair.
The differences between football and cricket in Qatar are stark. Billions of US dollars have been spent on getting Qatar ready for the FIFA World Cup, including on the construction of 7 brand-new football stadiums. By contrast, the Qatar Cricket Association (QCA), the body that organizes the game, receives mere hundreds of thousands of dollars. Players for the national football team are Qatar’s most revered residents, living on generous salaries. Those in the national cricket team are not even professionals; they work full-time jobs and so are forced to train in their free time. “I am working like an ATM machine, 24/7” one national cricketer told me with a wince. At the amateur level, it is perhaps more striking: footballers have access to five-a-side cages and the lush training pitches prepared for the teams in the World Cup. Most cricketers play with a tennis ball on patches of urban wasteland and empty car parks, demarcating the field of play with rocks, old sandals, and empty water bottles.
Why the large difference? Some believe it stems from the difficulty of attracting locals to cricket. “Only the Asian people like this thing,” I was told by an official involved in the game, originally from Pakistan. Others suggest that cricket’s neglected status is the result of an ineffectual cricket association that has hosted loss-making international tournaments and failed to develop the domestic game.
There are signs things might be changing. In December 2021, the QCA elected a new president who has ambitious plans involving national cricket academies and new domestic leagues. Others are more sceptical, seeing the neglect of cricket as a reflection of a wider ambivalence in Qatar towards people from the Asian subcontinent. Despite their labor being essential to the workings of the country, they are rarely embraced as part of the nation’s culture. “I want to serve [Qatar],” one national team cricketer told me, “but if their system won’t allow me to serve, what will I do?”
The devalued status of cricket is an important corrective to the narrative that Qatar is now lavishing money on all kinds of sports. Qatar’s investment is selective. As well as examining the drivers and consequences of support for certain sports, it is important to consider how and why others are overlooked.
Article by John McManus, writer and associate fellow at the British Institute at Ankara.
John McManus is a social anthropologist and writer who looks at sport, migration, and multiculturalism in the Middle East, in particular Turkey and Qatar. He is the author of Inside Qatar: Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth (Icon Books, 2022) and Welcome to Hell? In Search of the Real Turkish Football (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018).
His book on Qatar can be purchased here.
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.
The posts and comments on this blog are the views and opinions of the author(s). Posts and comments are the sole responsibility of the author(s). They are not approved or endorsed by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), or Georgetown University in the United States, and do not represent the views, opinions, or policies of the Center or the University.