Meet the Olympic handball team made up almost exclusively of well-paid foreigners

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
The Qatar handball team sings the country’s anthem before a game. (Reuters)
The Qatar handball team sings the country’s anthem before a game. (Reuters)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Left hand on their teammates’ left shoulder, right hand on their heart, two Syrians, two Montenegrins, two Bosnians, an Egyptian, a Croat, a Cuban, a Spaniard and a Frenchman stood together Tuesday morning and sang along to their national anthem. It was the same song.

Learning “as-Salam al-Amiri” is expected of the men who join Qatar’s national handball team. Over the last three years, as the Connecticut-sized peninsula nation that shares a border with Saudi Arabia has grown in population by nearly 50 percent, it has prioritized its modernization by stressing nationalism in the most obvious way: sports. And no sport allows foreigners to play for their non-birth country quite like handball.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

The International Handball Federation rule is simple: Those who haven’t played on their country’s national team in three years can naturalize to another nation. In order to attract foreigners to Qatar, the government used it greatest resource – oil money – and built a nascent super team in the high-paced sport that combines the speed and physicality of football, the rules of basketball and the throwing of baseball.

Though most of Qatar’s players are past their primes, the nation shells out millions of dollars in salaries for a sport where scratching out a living often can entail a second job. The money has worked: Qatar won the silver medal at the 2015 Men’s Handball World Championships, held in its capital city of Doha, a result that rankled the tight-knit community. Players complained. Officials sneered. No less authority on right and wrong than Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president who resigned amid oceans of corruption, said Qatar’s recruitment of foreign players reached “the point of absurdity.”

The potshots continued Tuesday after France, the team that won gold in the world championships last year, thrashed Qatar, 35-20, in a qualifying-round game at Future Arena. Of the 14 players on Qatar’s roster, 11 were born in another country. At some junctures during the game, all seven of Qatar’s players on the court were naturalized.

“We play for the love of the game,” French handballer Valentin Porte said, “and they play for the money.”

This is a constant refrain when it comes to Qatar, which last year brought former Barcelona star Xavi to play in its soccer league and has done the same with Raul, Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta. Hamad Al-Obaidly, the Qatar Olympic Committee’s press attaché, scoffed at the notion that players are coming to Qatar strictly for the payday.

“I do not agree with him,” Al-Obaidly said. “I stay with our players, all of them. Nobody plays for money.”

He paused.

“The money is good,” Al-Obaidly said. “And everybody wants more money. Me and you and everybody. As for our players, they play for loyalty.”

____________________

About 15 years ago, Boris Vrhovac moved to Qatar. He was a physiotherapist, and work was sparse enough in his native Serbia that a move to the burgeoning country of 600,000 felt right. Qatar’s population has grown four-fold since – more than 80 percent of Qataris are believed to have immigrated there – the power of petrodollars luring people from around the globe.

“The money,” Vrhovac said. “It’s perfect.”

The modernization of Qatar, and especially its resplendent capital, Doha, dovetails with a campaign called Qatar National Vision 2030. It is essentially a plan to turn desert land into an economy that doesn’t rely strictly on oil. And athletic success is at the center of it.

“Sports is as important as any other sector,” said Al-Obaidly, the press attaché. “Culture, economics, education, health – sports is one of the important things of our vision.”

The millions spent by Qatar on athletics pale compared to the reported $220 billion (with a B) it will shell out for the World Cup in 2022. The issues of the Rio Games have paled next to Qatar’s problems with the World Cup. Reports have said more than 1,000 migrants, brought in to build the stadiums, have died, while others allegedly have been forced into slave-like labor. Homosexuality and alcohol consumption are illegal in Qatar, and the clash of the country’s laws with accepted social mores has generated controversy. Qatar’s miserable summer heat forced the event to be moved to November and December. Considering Qatar was reportedly awarded the World Cup only because of bribes to FIFA members, the status of the tournament being held there remains shaky.

All things considered, paying handballers to naturalize feels like jaywalking. “We didn’t bring them from the airport directly to the team,” Al-Obaidly said, noting that players lived in Qatar before they were drafted onto the Olympic squad. Not all opponents are bothered by the process, either.

“It’s legal, so it’s absolutely fine,” German handballer Finn Lemke said. “No problem with it. But they’re good. That’s the problem.”

The legality of the naturalization rule is the issue, and the IHF could change it before the next Olympics. In the meantime, Qatar plans to take advantage of it.

“This is a rule in IHF, and Qatar isn’t the only team to do it,” said Kamal Aldin Mallash, a Qatari player born in Syria. “Other teams have the same. But all [people] say is Qatar, Qatar, Qatar.

“This is a profession. This is life. If I don’t take nothing, I can’t play.”

____________________

During the world championships last year, a section of fans wore the maroon-and-white jerseys of Qatar, held the Qatari flag and chanted as the team upset its way to the finals. Like most of the players for whom they were rooting, the fans weren’t from Qatar, either. The government flew them in from Spain to cheer for the home nation.

“We have a few groups from Spain that support us, but they come in all for money,” Vrhovac said. “That’s true.”

It wasn’t just fans and players. Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams played post-match concerts at the world championships. Singers, ringers – the clock is ticking on 2030, and Qatar spares no expense to fulfill its vision.

“I enjoy it very much,” said Goran Stojanovich, a Qatari goalkeeper originally from Montenegro. “What do you not have in Qatar that you don’t have in Europe?”

Well, alcohol. And well-developed social liberties. And plenty more that doesn’t fly in the law and order of Doha. Even so, there aren’t many well-paid handballers in Europe. The stars of Qatar make hundreds of thousands of euros a year to play mercenary, and they’re not apologetic for it. Opportunity is opportunity, and an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal.

“We take big [pride] in beating this team,” said Porte, the French player. “Especially for the Olympic Games, where one comes and represents the country. … The handball fans are happy when Qatar can be beaten.”

So long as Qatar remains in the tournament – it is 1-1 after beating Croatia in its first game and takes on Tunisia on Thursday morning – its players will relish others’ desire to send them to their adopted home. Until then, they’ll put their left hands on their teammates’ shoulders, their right hands on their hearts and sing the Arabic words that translate to something perfectly appropriate.

I swear, I swear
Swearing by the one who raised the sky
Swearing by the one who spread the light
Qatar will always be free
By the spirit of the loyal

What to Read Next