Milan stars stir desert debate
AC Milan's match against Al Sadd raises questions about nature of sport in Qatar.
Last Modified: 01 Mar 2009 15:37 GMT

Some big names are heading to the footballing outpost of Qatar's Al Sadd [GALLO/GETTY]

At a time of the season when AC Milan are usually preparing for a crucial return tie in the European Champions League, the 2007 Champions are heading into the sporting wilderness – looking for some much needed financial returns instead.

It is a move that has stirred a desert debate on fan culture in the Middle East.

As fierce cross-city rivals Inter prepare to travel to England for what looks an explosive return game against Manchester United next week, Milan head to Doha midweek for a friendly match against Al Sadd Club of Qatar.

For a club brimful of highly paid stars, the financial windfall will be a welcome bonus.

For David Beckham, it will be an unusual farewell game from European football if no late deal can be clinched to keep him in Milan ahead of his impending return to Los Angeles Galaxy.

It may come as little consolation that the design of the Al Sadd stadium in Doha is modeled on that of United's Old Trafford, where Beckham spent his formative professional years. 

Circus act 

Some insiders have pointed to the game as an indicator that the illustrious Italian club has become a travelling circus, parading ageing stars in a meaningless desert pay-day while Inter dominate Italian football at will.

When asked earlier this year about the implications about playing such a friendly match in the middle of the season, Stefano Eranio, the long-serving former AC Milan and Italy winger, told Al Jazeera: "There are a lot of matches - Italian League, Uefa Cup - and Milan is an old team.

"If they start making trips in the middle of the season maybe it will affect them."

But with the star-studded ensemble crashing out of the Uefa Cup in meek fashion against Germans Werder Bremen last week at the San Siro, others argue the trip into the desert comes at just the right time.

One of those is Doha-based television pundit Ronald De Boer.

"I don't think this will affect their season," the former Barcelona and Holland midfielder said.

"It is like a well paid training game for them, and anyway they have just gone out of the Uefa Cup, so there are less fixtures for them this season."

One official at the Italian club pointed to the good weather in Qatar and the relative proximity between the two cities - 4,400km covered by a six-hour flight - as positives.

Goodbye Jaffal 

A special plane for the AC Milan team is said to have been arranged for the game, and sources at the Qatari club indicated a fee of around $1.5million had been paid to bring the Italian side to Qatar for veteran Al Sadd captain Jaffal Rashid al-Kuwari's farewell match.

Jaffal Rashid shows off the Qatar League Shield in 2004 [EPA]
The deal is said to include a clause for all the stars to play on Wednesday.

They include a veritable dream team of top stars past (Beckham, Paulo Maldini, Ronaldinho), present (Kaka) and future (Pato), causing much commotion in Qatar.

In the Gulf state where fans are usually accustomed to seeing top international sports stars for next to nothing, high ticket prices for the exhibition game have caused a quiet stir.

Some say they will give the high profile game a miss, despite the host of top names in attendance. 

"Normally the tickets for sports events range from being free to 50 Qatar riyals (about $14)," said Erik, a frequent visitor at Qatar's numerous top sporting events such as the Qatar Masters golf and Qatar Open tennis.

"But now all of a sudden they ask for a minimum of 250 QR.

"I think it is the sudden increase that caught people by surprise."

Modest support

Top sports events have been free of charge for many years here, but spectator numbers have still been mediocre at times.

"When I came here with the Ivory Coast team one and a half years ago the Al Sadd Stadium was not sold out, even though we were here with the best team including Didier Drogba," former 'Elephants' coach Uli Stielike told Al Jazeera.

"That did surprise me back then. So it would surprise me now if the game against AC Milan was sold out."

In an effort to combat apathy towards top class sports, this year has seen gate fees being charged in the Qatar football league, as well as the Qatar Open tennis tournament.

"I think it is a positive move to start charging people for watching this high quality of sports," Swiss star Roger Federer said in Doha in January.

"Giving tickets away for free is not the right approach."

Observers see the new trend as a wider attempt to cultivate a genuine sports culture in the country ahead of ambitious bids for the football World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Numbers game 

With a rapidly growing population now numbering about 1.5 million, they say the shift also makes numerical sense.

"Milan doesn't come for nothing," De Boer pointed out.

"So it is justified to try and get some money back through the gate fee.

"We really can't complain here in Qatar. The government does so much sport for free or for a low price.

"It should not be too much to ask people to pay 45 Euros for this match."

Many Doha residents agree.

"To see Kaka play live I would pay anything," said Rashid, a local football fan wearing a Milan shirt days before the game.

Al Sadd officials say ticket sales have been brisk.

At the clubhouse reception calls inquiring about the tickets flood in.

"Yes, the tickets for 10,000 QR include a VIP buffet and parking," the receptionist confirms to one customer.

Companies have been rushing to book tickets for their employees.

In a country still relatively shielded from the worldwide economic downturn, many relish the chance to see the stars they may normally only watch on television.

At an aqua aerobics class in Doha the ladies have cancelled their Wednesday class.

Becks' legs 

"We have to see David Beckham, and especially his legs, in action," one mature lady swoons.

Qataris are passionate about their football [GALLO/GETTY]
Here Beckham remains a star – and Milan a team full of attractions – even if they are not present on the biggest stage in Europe any longer. 

But for experts like De Boer, the time is nearing for a new look Milan side.

"It was a big disappointment for them to lose against Bremen in the Uefa Cup," he said.

"Sometimes, even if the coach is doing good work, you need a new face to motivate the players again.

"Milan now needs to bring more young players into the side and look to the future."

On this Wednesday, though, that generational shift will have to wait.

Fans in Qatar will want to see the established stars of world football that they paid big money to see.

But it could be that a team which critics say is well past its prime is helping bring about a shift in fan culture in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera
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