Think of the shirt sponsors you see in soccer: for the biggest teams, it’s almost always an airline, telecommunications company, a bank, or maybe a car company. These are all industries that have the same international reach and appeal as soccer, the world’s most popular sport. Taking inspiration from the game is only natural for them in their mission to establish connections between people across even the greatest of cultural and geographical distances — not just between next door neighbors. A game played in Spain or England will be watched around the world, from America to Indonesia and everywhere in between. The exposure that soccer offers to a business is unparalleled, but the relationship is far from one-sided. These partnerships allow the game to grow in communities around the globe, whether they have always loved football or their romance with the game is just beginning.
After all, as much as soccer is a team sport, the best storylines have always revolved around individual players. This has never been more true than in the age of social media. Fans can interact with their idols directly, creating a sense of connection to the athletes who help to create our wildest dreams. There is no greater feeling for a fan than knowing that your support matters, and the right partnership in soccer can cultivate close relationships between a global superstar’s immediate community. In regions like the Middle East and North Africa, a new level of economic commitment to the game has led to greater connections. As Qatar has looked to establish itself as a world-class destination, and not just a stopover point for travel between east and west, the outreach efforts of Qatar Airways have played a significant role in bringing the country closer to the hearts and minds of the global community through soccer.
Perhaps the most iconic partnership the airline forged was with F.C. Barcelona from 2013 to 2017. The shirts of the historic Catalan club bore the logo of Qatar Airways as players like Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar led the Blaugrana to another UEFA Champions League title in a triumph over Juventus, the Italian champions. This was also the final match in a Barcelona shirt for legendary Spanish midfielder Xavi, who sealed a move to Qatari club Al-Sadd for the following season. The midfield maestro went on to spend four seasons with his new team, raising the stature of domestic football in Qatar with every kick of the ball. The success that the Spaniard enjoyed in Qatar encouraged other foreign players with reputations to seek a professional move to the country, which is exactly what Dutch marksman Wesley Sneijder did in 2018 with a transfer to Qatari club Al-Gharafa. Both players made these decisions at significant junctures in their careers, bringing soccer in Qatar onto the world stage at the best possible time.
As the sponsorship deal with Barcelona expired, the vigilant Qataris took an opportunity to establish roots elsewhere in Europe by agreeing a subsequent shirt deal with A.S. Roma, another giant club with an immense backing. But speaking to their international vision, they also capitalized on a major sponsorship opportunity in South America with Boca Juniors. One of Argentina’s most popular clubs and the country’s most successful, they will sport the logo until 2023. Besides the national airline, they also decided to promote Doha’s Hamad International Airport itself, emphasizing its role as a state-of-the-art thoroughfare for world travelers. A patch on the sleeve of F.C. Bayern Munchen, the almost-perennial champions of Germany and another of the best-supported clubs on the planet, will commemorate the club’s commitment to fan service around the world. The effort to show fans that they are loved was redoubled by opening a pop-up shop in Doha around the time that the sponsorship was announced.
Of course, if anything overpowers the remarkable fever of support for club football, it’s the spectacle of international soccer. The men’s and women’s versions of the FIFA World Cup represent the pinnacle of the sport, and are always some of the most widely-watched television events around the world. In fact, the 2018 World Cup in Russia attracted an estimated viewership of 3.6 billion people, just short of the all-time record set by the 2012 London Olympics. The Russian World Cup was one of the most successful examples of the tournament in recent years, which Qatar Airways contributed to with broadcast and match-day sponsorships. The same can be said of the recently-concluded Women’s World Cup in France, where Qatar Airways cabin crew were waiting to greet the champion Americans with medals on center stage in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.
The partnerships that Qataris have pioneered within the global game are one-of-a-kind and demonstrate an undeniable commitment to taking the sport to new heights. By working with organizations such as Barcelona, Roma, and Munich, and enticing legendary players to show their skills in Qatar’s domestic league, a long-standing history of the game is honored while simultaneously paving way for more history to be created. All of these recent efforts will culminate in style at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar itself, where reigning champions France will be hard-pressed to defend their title against challengers from far and wide. This includes the hosts themselves: a surging Qatari national team is truly stepping onto the world stage for the first time after winning the 2019 Asian Cup — without losing or drawing a single game — and rising to an all-time high of 55 in the world rankings.
While Qatar was not a traditional home to soccer culture, there is no way to create talent or passion where it doesn’t exist. The team has simply capitalized on that which already exists in the game to improve their position within the culture of soccer and deepen the Middle East’s relationship with the sport. So far, it’s worked and the future is bright indeed for this emerging powerhouse.
Have any soccer stories from your travels? We’d love to hear them!
Header photo by Saurav Rastogi. Words by Joseph Ozment.