Gabriel Batistuta, Pep Guardiola and Fernando Hierro were some of the names to head to Qatar in the last decade but will the country become even more attractive to big players?
By Ben Somerford | Asian Football Editor
Spanish legend Raul announced this week that he will be ending his long and decorated European career at the end of this season, giving rise to speculation linking him to Qatar's aptly named Stars League (QSL), with Al Ahli and Al Rayyan reportedly interested.
Raul, who was rumoured to be a target for a host of Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs, is now unlikely to make a US switch due to family reasons. A move to Qatar now appears on the cards, and he wouldn't be the first big-name star to end his playing career in the small sovereign Arab state. Spaniards Pep Guardiola (Al Ahli) and Fernando Hierro (Al Rayyan), along with Marcel Desailly (Al Gharafa), Frank and Ronald de Boer (Al Rayyan) and Gabriel Batistuta (Al Arabi) all graced the QSL towards the end of their careers.
However, Raul's reported transfer would be unique and a major boost for football in Qatar, a country which shocked the world when they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. This comes in stark contrast to the fact that few world-class players have been lured to Qatar in recent years.
It was way back in 2003 that the Qatari Football Association (QFA) attempted to bring the local league to life by allocating $10 million (€7.6m) to each club in order to attract big name players. Ageing stars such as Stefan Effenberg, Sonny Anderson, Frank Leboeuf and Romario made the move, but few have followed suit since 2005.
|MARQUEE QSL ARRIVALS
Frank de Boer
Ronald de Boer
Al Sadd/Al Wakrah
Al Rayyan/Al Shamal
Al Rayyan/Al Shamal
Al Rayyan/Al Gharafa
Of course, it'll ultimately depend on whether there's a willingness to invest in the local competition again, given the varying degrees of success the previous fund had. Certainly attendances improved, some players like Batistuta (who broke Qatari legend Mansour Mouftah's league goalscoring record with 25 goals back in 2003-04) dazzled locals and it boosted the global profile of Qatari clubs, but there wasn't any huge long-term legacy.
In recent years there has been a shift in power and philosophy in the QSL with Lekhwiya, promoted two years ago, winning back-to-back titles. The club has the biggest squad budget in Qatar as they are owned by the State's Heir Apparent - Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani - but they've won titles on the back of wise investments in good quality local talent and foreigners who are on the right side of 30 such as Madjid Bougherra, Bakari Kone and Nam Tae-Hee. Compare that to big Qatari clubs like Al Rayyan and Al Arabi (both seven-time domestic champions), who recruited the majority of the big names early last decade, yet haven't won the league since 1995 and 1997 respectively.
Indeed, some marquee recruits such as Hierro, who arrived at Al Rayyan as a 35-year-old, ultimately failed to win over the fans with his performances and was eventually sold to English outfit Bolton. There was mixed success with foreigners and that gave rise to the predictable suggestions that the players were simply there for "one last paycheque before retirement".
|"I played at the highest level for 14 years with Real Madrid and that is what should be talked about - not one year of low-profile football in Qatar"
- Fernando Hierro
On the flipside of that, such a stigma has often tarnished the reputation of players. When Hierro left Al Rayyan, he told reporters: "I played at the highest level for 14 years with Real Madrid and that is what should be talked about - not one year of low-profile football in Qatar."
Some may argue this may be enough to fend off players from moving to cashed-up Qatari clubs in the twilight of their careers. However, this hasn't halted many big names such as Fabio Cannavaro and David Trezeguet as well as Al Wasl coach Diego Maradona ending up in the UAE's Pro-League. This suggests that if there was a similar appetite to invest in Qatar, there'd be no shortage of big-name stars willing to jump at the chance.