Life in Qatar, my coaching philosophy and the 2022 World Cup project
By Xavi Hernandez
With less than two years until the World Cup is hosted in the Middle East and Arab world for the first time, excitement is really starting to build here in Qatar. The country has promised to put on a spectacular show for football fans and having seen the pace of development since I moved here in 2015 – on everything from stadiums and accommodation, to road and rail infrastructure – I’ve every confidence that it will be an incredible tournament for both players and fans.
I moved to Qatar to join Al Sadd and prolong my playing career. It was a huge decision for me and my family to move from Barcelona, my home city, and a club I love so much, to start again in a whole new part of the world.
At the time, my passion for playing the game was as strong as ever, but deep down, I knew I would no longer be able to contribute as much as I would have liked on the pitch at a club like Barca, where every game is a must win. When I learned about the World Cup project in Qatar by speaking to friends such as Raúl, who had already played here, I was truly impressed by what the country wanted to achieve both on and off the pitch by hosting the tournament.
It was a great opportunity for me to continue playing football while also playing a role in a bigger, national project – with the aim of achieving great things off the pitch through the programmes put in place to deliver positive social change beyond 2022.
When you walk around Doha and meet the locals, their passion for football is clear. I didn’t really know what to expect when I first moved here as it was a completely new experience for me, leaving Barca after 25 years, to go to a new part of the world with a different culture and traditions. But I must admit that I like practically everything about living in Qatar. The weather is amazing, with sunshine almost every day, and it is a very relaxing place to work as the people are really respectful and friendly. It’s also a very safe country with very little crime, so is a great place to raise a young family.
Since moving here, I have got to spend lots of quality time with my wife and two young children. As training takes place in the evening most days, I have time to take my daughter to pre-school every day and then spend the rest of the morning playing with my son. At the weekend, there are lots of nice things to do. I often go out to eat at one of Doha’s many nice restaurants, such as Lo Spaghetto, which is great for Italian food, or to Bibo, a Spanish restaurant, for a taste of home. The beach hotels here are amazing and a great place to relax at the weekends, although recently with the football season in full flow I haven’t had as much time to enjoy this aspect of life in Qatar!
Since moving to Qatar, I have also had the opportunity to work on some incredible charitable initiatives. One of the projects – Generation Amazing – has become very close to my heart. It uses the power of football to empower and educate young people and teach important life skills. The programme recently celebrated its tenth anniversary and it has been a pleasure to watch it grow to the point where it has now positively impacted more than 500,000 people across ten countries. Some of the projects have included building football pitches in refugee camps and implementing sustainable programmes which ensure the facilities are used effectively. I have attended pitch launch ceremonies in Jordan and India – and the impact they have on communities is huge.
While I had initially only planned on staying in Qatar to finish my playing career, when I was presented with the opportunity to take over as the manager of Al Sadd I was delighted. My family and I had really grown to love Qatar and the way of life over here, so it was a brilliant chance for me to take the first step in my managerial career and oversee a squad with a number of promising players likely to feature for the Qatar national team in 2022. Having played for Al Sadd, I knew it would be a fantastic place for me to transition to life on the touchline and help develop some of these players.
It took some time to adapt to my new life as coach but I'm enjoying it very much. My philosophy is the same as when I was a player. I like football to be played in a positive way. As a player I liked having the ball, keeping possession, going on the attack and creating as many chances as possible. I believe in a possession-based game, played at a high tempo, and I like my players to understand the importance of playing as a team. Everyone has to defend together and attack together. Above all, players must enjoy playing football and the best way to enjoy football is to have the ball, create lots of chances and score lots of goals. This is how I lived it as a player, and it is how I want my players to experience the game under my management.
Today we will play against Al Arabi in the Amir Cup final. It is the most prestigious competition in Qatar and a tournament that every player here wants to win. It will be the first game to be played at Al Rayyan Venue – one of eight stadiums that will host World Cup matches in 2022. The game is on 18 December, Qatar’s National Day, and will mark the two-year countdown until the FIFA World Cup final. The stadium will also be at 50% capacity, which will be great for the players and should create a good atmosphere and a real sense of occasion after a challenging period for everyone.
From my time here, it is clear that football is developing very well in Qatar. The World Cup project meant that they had to really focus on developing not only top-class facilities and stadiums to host the tournament, but a national team capable of competing on the biggest stage with the world’s best teams. Aspire Academy, which launched back in 2004 to help develop footballers and other athletes in the country, has been a huge success. The new generation of players coming through in Qatar are improving a lot. I can see this improvement with my own players at Al Sadd and it is a privilege to work with them every day and help them grow in confidence.
With the current rate of development and having recently won the AFC Asian Cup, I think Qatar can compete very well at their first World Cup in 2022. Football culture is growing at a tremendous speed here and I think the World Cup will help take the game to the next level – not only in Qatar but in the whole Arab region. While eventually the time will come for me to take the next step in my managerial career, for now, I’m focused on enjoying my time here and making the most of the opportunity to play a small role in Qatar’s exciting journey to 2022.