SMALL country, small population, small talent pool, no fans, big budget... this is an oft-repeated narrative about Qatar’s sports scene.
Critics have always held poor crowd turnout at venues as a major factor against Qatar while contesting its right to host big events. Similarly, the national teams’ lack of travelling fans has also been used as a weapon to question Qataris’ passion for sports.
Empty stadiums is a phenomenon seen not just in Qatar or the GCC region. Even in Europe, games are played in front of sparse crowd on certain days. Portugal, which built big venues to host the 2004 European Football Championship, reportedly faces the problem.
Though some would argue that fans do not always show their passion by attending games, it is obvious that we miss the real ambience without them.
A great example of how electric the atmosphere could become and thereby motivate players to raise their performance level was evident last week when FC Barcelona staged one of the most memorable comebacks at the Camp Nou to defeat Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League.
And when it comes to travelling fans, there’s no better model to emulate than England’s Barmy Army, a group of supporters which follow its cricket team.
In Qatar too, there have been initiatives to generate fan support, but the success rate remains poor, with various federations either having given up and resorted to ‘hiring’ the crowd.
On this front, the Team Malaysia initiative, a platform aimed to generate nation-wide support for its national teams, is worth emulating. This is part of Telekom Malaysia’s Corporate Social Responsibility and the accompanying interview with its general manager (group brand and communication) reveals how they succeeded in generating so much fan interest in a short span of time.
Qatar, as 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts, cannot simply wish that the mega event would automatically draw full houses day in, day out. The organisers must develop plans to attract fans and offer them attractive packages.
In a place like Qatar, a fan may be engaged for a maximum of three hours for a football game, for travel to the stadium and back to hotel and 90 minutes of match time. But more activities will have to be designed to engage them outside this, though the compact nature of the Qatar World Cup would help a fan watch more than a match a day.
Qatar will also have to think of attracting more spectators to local events and develop a committed group to travel with its national teams abroad. For this, the sports federations and local clubs must develop a better rapport with all expatriate communities, and try and generate a sense of belonging in them.
Expatriates from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh playing cricket during weekends on open sandy grounds, often strewn with stones, in and around Doha, is a common sight as there are hardly any proper fields.
The clubs in Qatar should slowly give such passionate sports lovers access to their facilities so that they develop a sense of belonging. It would only be a matter of time before these people would come and start watching the club’s matches in other disciplines too.
Like Team Malaysia, give them T-shirts, help them get sports gears at discounted rates and organise local tournaments for them. They will start identifying with that club and respond positively when it needs support.
Sports tourism, both inward and outward, is another area where Qatar should focus more. If a Team Qatar concept is designed and compact package offered, there will be more nationals willing to travel and watch international events.
Destination branding through sports is not new to Qatar, but there has to be an attitude change from everyone involved, making the visitors feel at home.
With strategic vision and long-term planning, Qatar can also develop an ‘army’ of committed fans. But the big question is: Who will take the initiative?