National Identity in the Qatar Men’s National Football Team

Ross

The specter of national identity has lingered more intensely over Qatar’s national football team than any other national team in recent years.[1] The common claim often portrayed in the Western media is that the players who pull on the maroon jerseys are mercenaries who have little or no relationship with the country they represent. For a brief period of time in the early twenty-first century, it must be said, these claims did have some merit, as names such as Sebastian Soria, Roderigo Tabata, and Fábio César appeared with regularity on the Qatar team sheet. Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that an international athlete was a “primary expression” of a nation’s traditions, values, and beliefs,[2] appeared to be floating on perilous waters in the Qatari context.

What many critics fail to take into account, however, is the manner in which the Qatar men’s national football team, like the country, has undergone significant changes in recent years. The appointment of Félix Sánchez, a youth coach at the Aspire Academy, as senior manager in 2017 saw the national team give greater priority to underage talent with strong ties to the local community. Several players, such as Abdelkarim Hassan and Akram Afif, were born and raised in Qatar, making it the only home they have ever known. While others, such as Ahmed Alaaeldin and Bassam Al-Rawi, first came to the country as the young children of socioeconomic migrants.

In his most recent article, Gijsbert Oonk describes these kinds of athletes as having a “jus nexi” or “socio-economic citizenship.”[3] Such is their presence in the Qatar national team that fourteen of the twenty-three players who won the most recent Asian Cup in 2019 would fit this category of citizenship. Of the remaining nine players, six are from the jus sanguinis (full Qatari citizens) category, while the final three had no direct link to Qatar prior to their arrival as professional footballers. Unlike the largely South American imports parachuted in to quickly elevate the Qatar team in years previous, these players have a “permanent interest” in Qatar,[4] and the existence of such a group certainly muddies the waters for those who view the Qatar national team in binary terms of belonging. As such, does the Gulf state remain a dramatic outlier in world football in terms of identity switching? In its current guise, the answer is no. How does one criticize Qatar for selecting players born, raised, and nurtured in the country when Adama Traore and Ansu Fati are representing Spain, when Kylian Mbappé, the son of Cameroonian and Algerian immigrants, is the golden boy of French football, and when national teams all over Europe are buttressing their playing pools with players from around the globe?

So can it be said that these players are legitimate representations of the imagined community of Qatar? While the men’s national football team may not meet the expectations of those dedicated to an extremely stringent ethnic nationalism (a nationalism becoming increasingly rare in an ever-more globalized world), it does begin to reflect a sense of social nationalism, one that “defines itself by social ties and culture rather than by common descent.”[1] As a combination of Khaliji and non-Khaliji Arab players, the team certainly represents a significant portion of the permanent residents of Qatar whose ties to the country go beyond contractual employment. For the majority of these players, Qatari culture has shaped their values, their ideas, and even their language. Living in a country defined by transience, as people come and go, Qatar is the only home many of them have ever known. 

Notes:

[1] The focus is on the men’s national team because, as per FIFA’s current rankings, Qatar does not have a women’s national team at present. FIFA, “Women’s Ranking” October 12 2020, www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/#AFC.
[2] Oonk, Gijsbert. (2020). “Sport and Nationality: Towards Thick and Thin Forms of Citizenship,” National Identities, DOI: 10.1080/14608944.2020.1815421.
[3] Ibid.
[4] James G. Kellas, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 51–52.

Works Cited:

FIFA, “Women’s Ranking” October 12 2020, www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/#AFC.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Kellas, James G. The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).
Oonk, Gijsbert. “Sport and Nationality: Towards Thick and Thin Forms of Citizenship.” National Identities (2020). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14608944.2020.1815421.

Article by Ross Griffin an Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Literature in Qatar University. 

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.